PHOENIX – Grace, relentless, integrity and trust.
The Arizona State University women’s volleyball team chose these four words, better known as “G.R.I.T.,” as the foundation of this season.
When JJ Van Niel became the ninth head coach for the program in December 2022, volleyball was, of course, an important focus but not his immediate priority.
Niel knew the team’s camaraderie was key to wins and losses this season. His theory has been a rousing success. The Sun Devils are a perfect 12-0, marking their best start since 2015. ASU is looking to continue its momentum when it kicks off Pac-12 conference play against the University of Arizona Thursday at Mullett Arena.
“When I came in, it was literally going to be about culture right away,” Van Niel said. “You’ve got to build strong trust and relationships with your players. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching them.
“It doesn’t matter what you think you should teach them and how bought in you are, until they know that you care about them off the court as much as on the court.”
The offseason consisted of a core of nine returners and a new coach who was focused on getting to know his players while also trying to hire a full staff and recruit new players. Van Niel built his relationships with his team by spending time with his players one-on-one after practices talking about their lives outside of ASU volleyball.
Taking the lead from their coach, the nine returning players bonded as a team to build chemistry.
“Throughout the entire spring, we were doing team culture exercises and writing in our books that we had about leadership and learning how to navigate that,” said Claire Jeter, senior middle blocker for the Sun Devils.
During a team bonding trip, all of the players came up with goals they wanted to set for the year. They settled on G.R.I.T. as the acronym to define their team, and that no matter the results, grace, relentless, integrity and trust would be consistent with their actions.
Exhibiting grace, internally and externally, can be difficult in sports, especially when competing at such a high level.
“If I make a mistake, they’re not going to get frustrated or angry with me,” said Shannon Shields, a graduate setter in her fourth season with ASU. “I’m just going to set them again, and we’re going to fix that mistake.”
Shields credits that next-play mentality as part of the reason the team has seen so much success this season. When mistakes are made, the Sun Devils choose not to dwell, rather they are gracious with one another, move on and work together as a unit.
Coming off a 13-19 season in 2022, the Sun Devils felt overlooked and knew the team would need to be relentless to change the narrative.
“We are super determined to make a point to show how good we are this year,” Jeter said. “This team is just relentless, we go for everything.”
Gearing up for conference play, the team knows it has plenty to prove and wants to accomplish the goals set for themselves this season.
The team’s mindset allows the athletes to stay hungry and not allow themselves to get complacent on the court, even with their dominant success.
“We always want to get better,” Shields said. “JJ is pushing us saying, ‘I know you guys did really well, but we got to do better.’ I love that mindset.”
The Sun Devils are one of just two NCAA Division-I teams to start their season 12-0. Nine of those 12 wins were 3-0 sweeps of their opponent.
“We have some standards and my guess is if you talk to them, they’ll say it’s never good enough for me,” Van Niel said. “For us, it’s being really consistently focused on the things that we want to be great at, and the rest will hopefully take care of itself.”
That consistency and determination leads the Sun Devils into Thursday’s home opener against Arizona. The team is ready to kick off conference play, and there is no better setting than playing at home against ASU’s rival.
Thursday’s match will be the first official volleyball match to be played at Mullett Arena in Tempe. Opening weekend for the Sun Devils also serves as a celebration for the program’s 50th anniversary.
“It’s going to be a crazy time in Arizona and I’m so excited for Tempe to be lit up for our game against Arizona,” Jeter said. “It’s going to be so fun to play at home, especially for our first game. It’s going to be awesome.”
Integrity is a trait the team values both on and off the court. Holding each other to a high standard both in practice and matches is part of the Sun Devil’s definition, but also making sure everyone is upholding the standards they have set for themselves allows the team to strengthen its bond with one another.
Even the smallest details, such as being intentional during practices, is something that both players and the coaching staff have embraced.
“We do a lot of different things that we didn’t do last year that have really put us above where we have ever been at this program,” Jeter said.
A big difference from last year’s team is the fast offense that Van Niel introduced. Van Niel set a primary focus on passing and serving – two assets that have vastly improved the Sun Devil’s game.
Shields leads the charge offensively with 404 of the 481 assists through the first twelve matches. Senior Marta Levinska leads the team in kills with 151 and aces with 24.
Van Niel set a goal for his team to be the top of the Pac-12 in serving. Not only that, the Sun Devils are looking for a top finish overall in conference and an NCAA tournament appearance.
The trust developed on the court stems from the offseason work. With six new additions to start the 2023 season, the team focused on building those relationships right away.
“I think we got really lucky with the girls we got,” Jeter said. “As soon as they came in, we welcomed them with open arms.”
A big part in Van Niel’s recruiting process is making sure the athletes he brings in will fit into the culture they have worked so hard to develop.
Van Niel shared a story of recruiting junior transfer Shania Cromartie and how he knew she was going to be a great fit for the program after watching her play an Exploding Kittens card game with the team.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is our kid right there,’” Van Niel said. “She was completely engaged, completely having fun. They were all joking around.”
Shields mentioned how those off-court relationships have allowed her and her teammates to build their confidence and fully trust each other on the court.
The team’s G.R.I.T. was established early on, and it is the backbone behind the team’s success so far.
“I think we all really mesh,” Shields said. “We have that chemistry that’s really strong right now. I think that’s what pulled everyone in.”