Jan. 19, 2007
TEMPE, Ariz. -
2006 was a year to remember for the Arizona State volleyball team, as they made their return to the NCAA Tournament after a three-year absence. Head coach Brad Saindon and his Sun Devils made the most of the opportunity, winning a postseason match and advancing to the second round of the tournament. The season also featured some standout performances by student-athletes, headlined by junior libero Sydney Donahue. Arizona State finished the season 16-15, doubling their win total from a year ago. They finished with a winning mark for the first time since 2002, the last year they made the tournament. The 2006 team finished with an RPI of 32, up 120 spots from the 152 they finished at in 2005.
ASU started the season off hosting the Hilton Phoenix/East Mesa Sun Devil Volleyball Classic at Wells Fargo Arena. Utah Valley State, Northeastern and Loyola Marymount all came to Tempe trying to claim the trophy, but the Sun Devils were able to defend their home court. After dispatching Utah Valley State and Northeastern, ASU needed a win over LMU to win the crown. In a fast and furious match, the Devils swept the Lions to become tournament champions. In addition to the win, Sydney Donahue etched her name in the NCAA record books. Donahue recorded 50 digs in the match against LMU, setting a new NCAA record for digs in a three-game match. It also doubled as a Pac-10 record, which would not be the last one Donahue would set.
After traveling to two road tournaments, the Sun Devils returned home for the Tempe Courtyard by Marriott Classic featuring Duke, Butler and Notre Dame. Both Notre Dame and Duke had found themselves in the national rankings in 2006, so it would be a hard-fought tournament. After dropping a heartbreaker in five games to Duke in the opener, ASU rallied back to beat Butler, setting up a championship showdown with the Fighting Irish. Only a sweep of the Irish would give Arizona State their second tournament title of the season, due to tiebreaking procedures. Coach Saindon and his team came out hot, winning the first two games easily. But Notre Dame would not go away, as game three went down to the wire. Ultimately, Arizona State pulled out the win and took home their second trophy of the non-conference slate. The win was the eighth of the young season for Arizona State, equaling their win total from 2005.
The toughest conference in the nation, the Pac-10 once again was loaded as it featured six ranked teams on the first weekend of conference play. The Devils got a tough test in their conference opener, having to travel to Tucson for a meeting with in-state rival Arizona. The McKale Center had been a house of horrors for ASU of late, as the Devils entered the match having dropped six consecutive meetings with the Wildcats in Tucson. But the 2006 Sun Devils proved they were not like previous teams, as Brad Saindon and his squad stormed into to Tucson and beat Arizona in every facet of the game on their way to a 3-1 win, their first over their rival since 2003.
The season would hit a rough patch after that, as the Devils had to face a murders' row of top 10 teams in the conference. Early in November, Arizona State faced a pivotal weekend in their hopes to earn a postseason invitation. Only a team with a .500 or better record can qualify for the NCAA Tournament, and the Sun Devils were dangerously close to elimination. With Oregon State and Oregon coming to Tempe, only a sweep would keep the hopes alive. After dispatching the Beavers, the most important match of the year had arrived. The Oregon Ducks came to Wells Fargo Arena sporting a #24 ranking and in the midst of their finest season in years. They had snapped a long losing streak to ASU with a win earlier in the season in Eugene, and would love nothing more than to end the postseason hopes of their conference rival. In front of one of the largest and loudest crowds of the year, the Sun Devils stepped up when they had too. After falling in the first game, Arizona State rebounded to win the next three and upset the Ducks to keep their tournament hopes alive.
Coach Saindon and the Devils needed two wins in their final three matches to finish with a winning record and a chance at an NCAA invitation. It would not be an easy road however, as ASU had to travel to Washington State and Washington before finishing out the regular season at home against Arizona. The match-up with the Cougars was a key one, as the Huskies were ranked second in the country and are rarely defeated on their home floor. A win over WSU would move the Devils one step closer to their goal. The Cougars were ready to defend their home floor, as they took game one and immediately put the Devils' backs against the wall. ASU would respond by winning the next two games, but a Cougar win in game four set up a tense game five. The two teams played about as even as you can throughout the game, but the Sun Devils were able to eke out a win and keep their postseason dream alive. After falling to the Huskies in Seattle, the Arizona State season would come down to one final regular season home game. Win and they qualify for the tournament, lose, and they stay home for the fourth straight year. Standing in their way was their arch-rival, the Arizona Wildcats.
The Sun Devils entered the contest with UA trying to snap some streaks. They had not swept a season series from Arizona since 1995 and had not finished with a winning record since 2002. A win against their rivals would end all of those and possibly propel them to the postseason. Over 1,600 maroon and gold clad fans turned out for senior night, as Arizona State honored their three seniors before the contest. The Devils made sure everyone went home happy, as they dominated the Wildcats on their way to a three-game sweep. Arizona State would learn their fate two days following the UA match, as the 2006 NCAA Tournament brackets would be announced on ESPNews.
Tensions were high as the NCAA Tournament selection show drew nearer, as the entire Sun Devil team gathered at Assistant Coach Mike Wall's house to see if they would be in or out. When the show finally started, the Devils didn't have to wait long to find out, as it was announced they were headed to Gainesville, Florida to face College of Charleston in the First Round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
The Sun Devils arrived in Gainesville wide-eyed, as no one on the roster had ever played in an NCAA Tournament match. At the same time, no one wanted to make an early exit in the school's first tournament appearance since 2002. The Pac-10 had seven schools make the tournament (Stanford, Washington, California, UCLA, USC, Oregon), so a strong showing would help prove that the Pac-10 was the strongest conference in the country.
The flu bug hit the team upon their arrival in the Sunshine State, where it rained for most of the weekend, but ASU would not let that get in their way of their goal. College of Charleston entered the match with a 27-7 record and was in the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. Thanks to some big blocks and timely kills by Tierra Burnley and Staci Smith, the Devils were able to hold off the Cougars and win the match 3-1. The win clinched a winning season and marked the third straight time ASU had advanced past the first round in the NCAA Tournament. Next up for the Devils were the #7 Florida Gators, who hadn't lost a game at home in the NCAA Tournament since 1995. Despite a strong effort, the Gators proved to strong for ASU, as the Sun Devils' season ended with a 3-1 loss to Florida. The Oregon Ducks were the only Pac-10 team not to advance past the first round, as the conference placed three teams in the Final Four.
RECORD SETTING YEAR
The year was not only a memorable one for the team, but also for junior libero Sydney Donahue. During her first two seasons in Tempe, Donahue had rewritten several school record books. In her debut season, she set a freshman record for digs in a season with 375. She followed that up by setting a school record for digs in a season as a sophomore, totaling 628. But neither of those could compare to the type of season she put together as a junior. Her Pac-10 and NCAA record 50 digs in the three-game win over LMU was only the precursor to her record-setting 2006. On November 10th, during the win over Oregon, Donahue recorded her 1,598th dig of her career. That vaulted her past Christy Nore for the most digs in the history of Arizona State University volleyball. Nore had held the record since 1988, but it took Donahue only three years to equal it. On November 16th, Donahue broke the record she set last year by digging her 629th ball of the season. She would finish the year with 742 digs, over 100 better than the previous mark. The 742 digs established a new Pac-10 record, shattering the old mark of 708 set by Chrissie Zartman of UCLA in 2004. Zartman set the record playing in 120 games, while Donahue broke it by playing in 113. Donahue became the first Sun Devil since Jami Coughlin in 2000 to lead the conference in digs. Donahue enters her senior season needing only 328 digs to break the all-time Pac-10 record.
The Devils collected some hardware following the 2006 season. Redshirt freshman setter Marina Mercer, who led the Devils in assists, was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman team. Senior outside hitter Nicole Morton and Sydney Donahue both earned Honorable Mention All Pac-10 honors. Seven Sun Devils earned Academic All Pac-10 honors, including First Team members junior Colette Meek and Marina Mercer. Meek was also named an ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District VIII Second Team member. Junior setter Rachel Mittelstaedt was named Second Team Academic All-Pac-10, while junior Danielle Fernandes, senior Nicole Morton, junior Alison Lund and senior Nina Reeves all earned honorable mentions.