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Sanja Tomasevic’s vision for ASU Volleyball comes to fruition in five-match win streak

Shane Dieffenbach Avatar
November 4, 2021

In 2017, ASU Volleyball finished the season with a record of 10-22 under then first-year head coach Sanja Tomasevic. The former assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the program, she was named the team’s interim head coach in the 2016 season. Given what she was able to do, she was officially handed over the keys in 2017 knowing the long road ahead.

Tomasevic joined ASU Volleyball from the University of Miami, where she helped the Hurricanes reach back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. Since taking over in Tempe, she’s helped the Sun Devils transform into a competitive force within the PAC-12 Conference.

“We talked about it not too long ago, Carlos [Moreno], Kyle and I, because we were all here from the beginning, and Nicole, our volunteer assistant coach,” Tomasevic said. “We’ll talk about how far we’ve come and how fun it is to have players that you can coach where you tell them to do something and they can actually physically do it.”

With eight matches remaining in the regular season, ASU Volleyball already has a record of 13-10 this season. Currently, they’re on a roll, winning their last five in a row. Their recent success has many questioning what they’re doing differently to get the squad prepared.

“Someone out there from Pac-12 Network asked me yesterday what we changed. I said, ‘nothing.’ That’s the thing, we didn’t change anything,” Tomasevic said. “We just started believing. They’ve done it enough in practice and in tough conditions where they know they can do it in a game.”

Junior libero Annika Larson agreed, saying the results in games are just the cumulative efforts of their focus and dedication.

“I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything that’s majorly different. I just think we’re growing, and growth in this case looks like winning more matches. It’s just being dialed in on those points, even in practice,” Larson said.

Sticking to the system

Losing is tough, and from a coaching standpoint, it can be easy to lose focus of the big picture. For Tomasevic, she’s committed to keeping the same systems in place despite the results.

“The hardest thing about coaching, and I think a lot of coaches make a mistake about that, is they change what they believe in based on results,” Tomasevic said.

She believes what sets her coaching staff apart from others is how they’ve personally had success with the system. Tomasevic has been a firm believer in the system for years, using it as a foundation and never straying, even when times were tough.

“We’ve never strayed away from what we’ve taught. It’s always been a matter of when it’s gonna stick,” Tomasevic said.

Tomasevic is a two-time All-American and a highly decorated collegiate volleyball player. At the University of Washington, she helped lead the Huskies to four consecutive NCAA appearances. She ended her career as the Huskies’ all-time leader in points, kills and service aces. With over 1,000 kills and digs, she’s only one of five athletes in Husky history to achieve the feat. She’s also only the second individual volleyball player to be inducted into the Huskies’ Hall of Fame.

Her assistant Moreno played at BYU, where he has the second-most career assists for the Cougars in program history. He also helped lead his team to consecutive NCAA appearances, including the 2004 National Championship.

The players have completely bought in. By focusing on the task at hand and doing their job, they know the rest will take care of itself.

“I’ve been saying this for a long time, it was just a matter of time,” Iman Isanovic said. “It was just a matter of time because there’s no doubt that we have potential on the team. We definitely have the physical abilities to do so. It was just a matter of time before it all clicked.”

Isanovic is a junior from Bosnia. She said she wouldn’t have taken the opportunity to come play collegiate volleyball in America for anyone else except Tomasevic. This year, she’s been leading the attack for ASU Volleyball.

“It’s a huge risk you have to take, but it’s definitely a risk that was worthwhile. I’m taught by someone who is a legend in the Pac-12. Just having that person to teach me how to do it, I can safely say that I’ve improved so much under her wing,” Isanovic said.

Tomasevic explained her coaching style as having both an offensive and defensive system. Within each of those systems, the coaches work with the girls to ensure they’re maximizing their potential. The players have also noticed more stability within the program and growth among the entire roster, not just the starters.

“Coming from Washington and using that system, I think that system provides stability,” Tomasevic said. “God forbid if someone gets hurt, you can just move pieces around and have a new person on the court that plays in a system.”

It’s been beneficial for the girls on the bench, too. Because they’ve helped improve their level of competition, it’s created a more fierce environment for practice.

“We have things set up in a way now where we can focus in and be really dialed in. It’s helping us a lot,” Larson said.

Tomasevic knows it takes time to build a collegiate program. Unlike professional athletes, the players are in Tempe for four years learning the system before the next cycle of athletes comes in.

“It just kind of gets passed on through generations. I mean, Washington right now is doing seldom things different from what we did in 2002. It’s cool, it’s been 20 years and they’re still doing the same stuff,” Tomasevic said.

Change is ugly, but it’s part of the process

Part of the change the program underwent was a vast overhaul of the roster. From 2019-21, there’s almost an entirely new team.

“You can see that there was just a major shift in the program players-wise,” Isanovic said. “I think that honestly it’s also kind of like a breath of fresh air, so to speak.”

She says everyone gives their all each day at practice, which has helped to elevate their overall level of competitiveness when it’s game time.

“We rebuilt with players who are very dedicated, who are really students of the sport,” Isanovic said. “Every single girl on this team really loves the sport and we love to support each other. It’s definitely fun being surrounded by those people every single day.”

Tomasevic noted how hard it can be to make changes when you’re already among the best at your sport.

Specifically, she noted how her coaches back in her playing days worked with her when it came to change. Tomasevic said she was initially flustered, feeling as if the coaches didn’t like anything about her. After speaking more in-depth with her coach about it, he presented the changes to her in a way she didn’t think of before.

“He goes, ‘Well, what if you could be one of the greatest who had ever played?’ And that got me, like, ‘Okay. Let’s talk,'” Tomasevic said.

From there, she said her coach asked her to commit to working on improving her hitting for the next three months. For Tomasevic, it was a grueling process, as learning to appreciate the growth was tough. She persevered, though, and ended the season with an 18 percent higher hitting percentage, marking a significant improvement.

“He didn’t throw everything my way right away, and that’s what I do with my players,” Tomasevic said. “We can’t change everything overnight. You have to pick your battles.”

Tomasevic noted part of why it’s so hard to change is because of the mistakes and errors that come along with doing things differently.

“You have to embrace the ugly,” Tomasevic said. “Ugly is a part of the process. You hear quotes about, you know, ‘Get comfortable with uncomfortable,’ and so I think that’s the part we’re learning to celebrate. A mistake is an opportunity learn.”

ASU Volleyball has shown they’ve been collectively learning from their mistakes in the past few seasons as they’re heating up at just the right time. In the games where the pressure is on, they’ve been able to block out all distractions and pay attention to the task at hand.

“At the end of it, when you get the result that you want, it wasn’t that bad,” Tomasevic said. “The process is hard because you have to live with being ugly and being bad.”

It’s such a rewarding feeling, and something she loves to see come full circle. Tomasevic can see reflections of herself and her former days as a player as the girls return to the court each day eager to learn.

“You become addicted to improvement and that’s what’s happening to them right now,” Tomasevic said.

Control what you can control

In order to be successful, Tomasevic knows they can’t let their minds run wild.

“If you start thinking ‘We have to win,’ that’s a hefty goal against anybody, let alone a Pac-12 team,” she said. “You don’t control that 100 percent, but you do control what you do right now, this moment, yourself. That’s what we focus on.”

Tomasevic said instead of focusing on the results, they focus on the process of getting there and what they need to do on a smaller scale. She said doing this for 75 points to win a game is critical.

“We don’t look at the big picture, we look at one point at a time,” she said. “So dialing it in and doing your job.”

Larson said they’ve learned they need to keep the focus on their own efforts and their ability to earn their points by executing. She also noted they can’t expect anything to be a gimme, especially in the conference.

“Putting the other team in a position where we can go block them, or getting a good serve…the minuscule things are the things that shine almost the brightest in these stages, especially in the Pac. Everyone is really good and you have to be able to bring it,” Larson said.

ASU Volleyball built on a culture of love

One of the most special things about ASU Volleyball is the group’s unbreakable bond and deep love for one another. It’s something that starts with Tomasevic and flows freely through the players.

It doesn’t matter if they win or lose. As long as they give a complete effort, Tomasevic is happy no matter what. It’s something she realized as she was journaling one day. Reflecting on her time as a player, Tomasevic questioned herself as to why she never told the players how she feels about them.

“You know, a lot of times people project their feelings onto somebody else,” she said. “So, if they feel like, ‘Oh we didn’t win last night. We should have won. My coach probably hates me.’ I don’t, and I felt like they needed to know that.

“I told them, ‘Win or lose, I love you the same. I think you’re amazing, beautiful, smart women. That doesn’t change. Win or lose, you are everything and a bag of chips. That’s how I think about you, all of you guys. Now let’s make this experience more enjoyable by focusing on those little things and fixing the little things.’”

Tomasevic discussed some of the moments in her playing career helping to mold her coaching style. Most notably, she was able to reflect on the way she didn’t want to be as a coach, stating that she never wants her team to feel like her love comes with conditions. Most notably, she discussed previous coaches who would go as far as refusing to feed her and her teammates after a loss.

“There has to be respect, there has to be love, there has to be care because what we do is not easy,” she explained.

Exuding passion and confidence

With each set, ASU Volleyball continues finding new things to improve on. While they’ve won some big contests as of late, collectively, they know they’re just scratching the surface of their potential. Tomasevic said she talks to the girls about staying hungry and staying humble in their quest to the top, never being satisfied with anything less than their best.

It’s what continues to motivate players like Isanovic, who won both the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week and AVCA Player of the Week awards for her performances on the road against Utah and Colorado.

“We’re definitely the underdogs when you talk about us in comparison to the other teams in the Pac-12 because a lot of teams in the Pac-12, like you said, it’s a very high-ranked conference,” Isanovic said.

“That’s the mindset of the whole team,” Tomasevic said. “We know they’re studying us. We know they’re watching us.”

Both Larson and Isanovic noted the victory against UCLA was a huge turning point for the program. Not only were the Bruins the top-ranked team in the conference, it marked the first win for ASU Volleyball against UCLA since 2014.

“We hadn’t beat them in a really long time, so it was really cool and it was a really competitive match, too,” Larson said. “I think that’s what made it so much fun.”

Larson explained that it wasn’t each team being outplayed and trading sets, it was a competitive and high-intensity match through its entirety. A defining moment, which helped ASU Volleyball build its identity moving forward, was rallying back from an 0-2 deficit for a reverse sweep.

“That’s what a good volleyball game is, and you couldn’t ask for more, especially in the Pac,” Larson said.

ASU Volleyball went into the match unranked, and with seven years passing since their last victory, it was just another time the Sun Devils were looked at as the underdogs in the competition. For Isanovic, it’s part of what’s made the process so thrilling.

“I feel like it’s also so fun playing as an underdog because not only does that team get shocked, but every person who is watching the game gets shocked,” she said. “Then we’re just standing there on our side of the court like, ‘Yeah, serves you right for underestimating us.'”

Tomasevic said she can tell people are taking ASU Volleyball more seriously now when they come to Tempe. It’s refreshing, as it’s confirmation they’re progressing forward, but she says they’re nowhere near satisfied with what they’ve done and are hungry for more.

“There was a time people would come to ASU and they were like, ‘We don’t need to worry about them, we just have to do our job,’” Tomasevic said. “Now, they actually have to worry about us too and do their job.”

“We’ve become a team to be noticed and be reckoned with, so it’s definitely fun coming through that process,” Isanovic said.

Discussing where ASU Volleyball is as a group, Tomasevic says she’s not surprised with how well the girls have performed and the continuous improvements she sees from them. She said the group has poured their heart and soul into the hard work behind the scenes. For her, it was only a matter of time until it translated to results on the court. It’s a similar mentality for the players.

“It doesn’t shock me what we’re doing right now and hopefully what we’ll continue to do…I think we have the physical predisposition alongside an awesome all-around team with the coaching staff and the team in general,” Isanovic said.

“Our saying this year is ‘Together We Will’ and I think, especially once it starts to get tough towards the end of the season and we’ve played 20-plus matches, everyone is in the same position,” Larson said. “It’s learning how to come together and how to grit it out.”

As ASU Volleyball rises to relevance again, it’s been refreshing for the athletes on the team to see their hard work taking them in the direction they want to go. Making it even more special is their ability to include the entire team in the success as they make waves across the volleyball landscape.

“We’re starting to resurface recognition-wise and we’ve potentially even started to have a target on our backs, but I think that is so awesome,” Isanovic said. “It just proves to the volleyball world, and America in general, to watch out for us and we’re just going to continue doing what we’ve been doing thus far.”

Young roster allows for unlimited room for ASU Volleyball to improve

Looking at the roster, one of the most amazing things about ASU Volleyball is the success they’re having with the youth on the team.

“We’re young. We’re really young,” Tomasevic said. “We were in Colorado and I was looking on the court and we had four freshmen and two sophomores on the court. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Some of them haven’t even tapped into 30-percent [of their potential].”

Of the 20 girls on the roster, nearly 75 percent are underclassmen. There are five freshmen, nine sophomores, four juniors, one senior and one fifth-year senior. For Tomasevic, looking at what the team is already accomplishing brings a huge sense of optimism for the future. Adding in their commitment to their team and their willingness to learn only furthers the possibility.

“I honestly get chills when I think about it, because we are such a young team,” Larson said.

“If you look at the bench, you look at Megan Reilly, she’s doing amazing,” Tomasevic said. “She traveled with us last weekend and the kid is just the epitome of a team player. Whatever you want her to do, she’ll do it.”

Reilly’s dream, according to Tomasevic, was to play volleyball at Arizona State since she was seven years old.

“I remember when I offered she cried,” Tomasevic said smiling, reflecting back on what she said was a first for her as a head coach.

Tomasevic also touched on what it was like when she recruited Reilly’s other freshman teammate Geli Cyr. When she originally saw Cyr play for the first time, she said she told Moreno she had the potential to be one of the best passers of all time.

“Geli [Cyr], we’re like 30 percent of where Geli’s gonna be,” Tomasevic said. “She’s gonna be unbelievable.”

It’s not just the freshmen who are starting to come into their own, but the sophomores too.

“Same thing with Claudia and with Ella, it’s exciting,” Tomasevic said. “I’m so happy for them. We talk about, and I’ve said this so many times this year already, but I hope everyone gets to love their job as much as I love my job now.”

For upperclassmen on the team like Larson, looking at the long-term trajectory of the team brings them satisfaction as leaders. By showing consistently through their efforts and hard work, and by committing fully to the system, they’re seeing results.

“I see the work that not only I put in every single day, but that every single girl on this team puts in every single day,” Isanovic said. “Everyone on this team is so dedicated and committed to to just being better and making each other better.”

“It’s not them buying in, it’s when they can own it and it becomes their thing,” Tomasevic said. “I think we’re in a place right now where they’re owning it… They’ll do what we ask them to do because they see it’s working. As a coach, that’s a fun place to be.”

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