TEMPE – When the final whistle blew on the 2022 women’s volleyball season, the Arizona State Sun Devils found themselves in a familiar position. For the sixth time in the last seven years, the team finished the season with a record below .500 and missed another opportunity to play in the postseason.
After spending nearly a decade toward the bottom of the Pac-12 standings, the ASU administration decided it was time to make a change in the volleyball program.
On Dec. 10, 2022, two weeks after the Sun Devils dropped their final match to Arizona, the team parted ways with coach Sanja Tomasevic and started the search for a new leader.
On Dec. 29, JJ Van Niel was announced as the ninth head coach in ASU women’s volleyball program history. In the 11 months since his hiring, Van Niel has made the Sun Devil volleyball team unrecognizable from the year before.
Van Niel led ASU to a 26-6 record, which included upset wins over No. 1 Stanford at home and No. 6 Oregon on the road. Now, the first-time head coach is preparing the Sun Devils for their first NCAA tournament since 2015.
The Sun Devils’ run at a national championship starts Friday in Provo, Utah as they take on Georgia (19-11).
The unprecedented turnaround of the ASU volleyball program has resulted in Van Niel receiving the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award. The awards may not end there for Van Niel, whose name has been thrown around as a potential winner of the National Coach of the Year award.
“It’s an honor. It’s special because your peers vote for it and that’s awesome. It’s a testament to our team and how well we’ve played throughout the year,” said Van Niel about his Pac-12 Coach of the Year honor.
While Van Niel showed that he could be a top coach in the country this season, he couldn’t have done it without the players on the court. No player was more influential this season than opposite hitter Marta Lavinska, who is considered one of the best players in the Pac-12.
Lavinska finished the regular season first in the Pac-12 in points per set (5.57) and second in kills per set (4.68). The Latvian also had the highest-scoring game in the Pac-12 this year when she recorded 30 kills against Cal on Oct. 1.
Just like Van Niel, Lavinska’s play was recognized by her peers as she was named to her first career All-Pac-12 team – an upgrade from being listed as an All-Pac-12 honorable mention for the past two years.
“Our team put in so much work and without them, I wouldn’t have received this title. It’s a good feeling that all this hard work has paid off,” Lavinska said.
While the individual awards are great honors for both Lavinska and Van Niel, their sights are now set on the NCAA Tournament.
While Georgia is ranked lower than No. 5 ASU in the tournament, the Bulldogs pose a challenge with their middle blocker Sophie Fischer, who was named the SEC Player of the Year.
“Georgia is a tough team. They run really fast to the left and the right and then they find Fischer,” Van Niel said. “So we’ll have to get our hands on the balls that she’s getting set and be really scrappy on defense.”
If ASU can make it through Georgia, the team will play Saturday against the winner of Weber State and host No. 4 BYU.
Just like football and basketball games, BYU fans get loud for volleyball matches. With the intensity of postseason play and the game location favoring Cougars fans, the crowd could play a big part in ASU’s potential second-round match this weekend.
“We love playing in crowds that are rowdy and engaged. That fires us up, even though they are rooting for the other team because when they talk smack to you, you want to prove them wrong. It’s kind of a pride thing, so I’m excited to play (at BYU),” Lavinska said.
Van Niel has a different perspective on the BYU crowd.
“Playing at BYU sucks, to be honest. They do a really good job at getting massive crowds,” Van Niel said. “It’s not an easy place to play but we go to where they send us and we’ll play our game.”
No matter what happens to the Sun Devil volleyball team in the NCAA tournament, nobody could have predicted the type of success the team encountered in the first year of the Van Niel era.
“The plan was always to make the tournament. We might have outperformed a little bit from what I was expecting. We had a cool season, but the season is over. It’s on to postseason play,” Van Niel said.