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In her concluding season with the program, Shannon Shields, ASU’s setter, has witnessed significant transformations within the Sun Devil program throughout the past four years.
After succumbing to losing seasons, appearing in only 26 matches her first two years at ASU and experiencing a massive coaching change, Shields along with the ASU program have finally found their stride in 2023.
Strides that Shannon may not have found had she not made the transfer from Louisville after her freshman year of college.
A transfer that was made not only to ASU, but back home to her roots in Phoenix.
“Louisville, I loved the team (and) I loved the coaches,” Shields said. “I just don’t think it was the right place for me.”
After an impressive showing in Shields freshman season with the 22-10 Cardinals where she started off her journey with 27 kills, 362 sets and 81 digs, she was in search of more in her career. A search that led her to be adorned in maroon and gold.
The Phoenix native grew up an only child and was adamant about moving as far away from home as she could. After one year, the temporary distance was enough for Shields and she was presented with an opportunity to return home that she could not turn down.
“When I was in the process of transferring, I wanted to maybe go back to ASU,” Shields said. “They were like ‘It’s gonna be great,’ (and) I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a go.’”
Commencing her tenure as the sole Phoenix native on the 2020 Sun Devil squad, Shields embarked on a new chapter that brought her back to where it all began.
A new program – A new approach
Experiencing a more challenging beginning to her ASU career than anticipated, with three consecutive years of losing seasons from 2020 to 2022, Shields and the team encountered a mix of disappointment and excitement.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Shields said. “But I feel like this year I just wanted to play free, have some fun with the girls. Obviously, I wanted to win but this was like my last year so I wanted to try new things and just be myself.”
Fun they have had.
A recurring theme in ASU player’s praise for the newly successful program comes in the form of first year head coach JJ Van Niel.
“Obviously, JJ was the big factor (for) this program,” Shields said. “We’ve always had the talent (and) I felt that we could always make it to the tournament. We were always kind of short.”
With the long-lasting chemistry that the players believed they had and the talented players on the roster, Van Niel’s new looking schedule, passion for the team and newly implemented offense is what Shields says really set the Sun Devil team apart this season.
“For me as a setter, having that fast offense and being able to just run the show, he (Van Niel) gives me that freedom,” Shields said. “I feel like that’s the difference between previous years to this final year.”
With victories behind the team’s successful season, they now have the opportunity to finally indulge in the long-awaited enjoyment and celebration of playing volleyball.
In Shields’ final season with the squad, this was her main goal. To enjoy her final year and play with a newfound passion for the game that she grew up to love.
As the pressure on the team’s performance decreases, more opportunities arise for them to forge connections both on and off the court. This aspect holds particular significance in the relationship between a setter and her team.
Shields is the floor general. She makes a play on the ball nearly every possession to control the situation and set the team up for success.
Through newfound bonds, Shields being able to read her teammates’ minds and visa-versa has made a complete difference in the team’s success this season.
“I feel like as a team, we do better when we have fun together and trust each other and I feel like what we’re doing now, we’re like unstoppable,” Shields said. “When you’re stressed and like, you know, one mistake after another, you got to shake it off, move on. I feel like we’ve really conquered that this year. We know how to just move on to the next play. I feel like that’s why we’re so consistent.”
Friendship within the ASU team has been a consistent theme this year, and as the team’s setter, Shields possesses a unique understanding of the dynamics of camaraderie among her teammates.
Great volleyball is making its return to The Valley
Trust plays a significant role among teammates, and when teammates also share friendships, that trust naturally becomes deeply embedded within each other.
While the ASU squad may not boast the tallest roster, with the tallest player standing at 6-foot-5, Shields is unwavering in her belief that each of her teammates has the capability to execute successfully.
“I feel like as a setter, I trust everyone on the court to put down a ball,” Shields said. “I feel like that’s because of the friendships we have outside.”
Off the court, most of the teammates are roommates or hang out with each other in their free time. On top of it all, they still plan team-bonding events to really forge a connection.
“We hang out with each other all the time,” Shields said. “I mean, we just did team bonding again, it’s like we’re about to go to the tournament.”
In anticipation of their postseason push, the team held a Thanksgiving dinner at Van Niel’s place and engaged in a spirited game of putt-putt. It was a competition that many would have relished the opportunity to be a fly on the wall for.
With the foundation of trust among teammates and strong friendships both on and off the court, Shields is enthusiastic about leveraging these bonds to demonstrate that ASU volleyball is poised to reclaim its greatness.
After three losing seasons and failing to make an NCAA Tournament appearance in eight years, ASU volleyball truly is great again.
Having navigated the club system in the valley and serving as a four-year starter for Xavier Prep High School in Phoenix, where she averaged 1.2 kills per set, 2.4 digs, and 7.9 assists, Shields is determined to demonstrate that Valley kids can pursue top-level volleyball right within the Valley itself.
Ranked No. 18 in the nation and holding a No. 5 seed after a 26-6 season, Shields’ desires are coming to fruition.
“Just showing the Arizona kids, ‘Hey, come to ASU, we’re a good program,’” Shields said. “So, I hope that this just shows we’re a good program. You know, you can stay in Arizona. It’s gonna be great.”
Now, joined by libero Mary Shroll as the only two Arizona natives, the two Sun Devils are hoping to bring a victory home to The Valley.
Bringing home a Sun Devil victory and a ticket to her next adventure
While Shields is currently aspiring to bring a championship to the maroon and gold community, surprisingly, she wasn’t always an ardent Sun Devil fan, despite her proximity to the school.
“I came to a few games (and) I loved watching, but I wasn’t really a fan of any kind, I never really had my bias,” Shields said. “But it was always fun to come and I knew one of the setters that played here was one of my setter coaches.”
So, although she may not have been a die-hard Sun Devil growing up, she is now a Sun Devil for life and is grateful to be playing in the place that she grew the love of the sport for as a kid.
“Arizona is obviously like a huge place, a great place,” Shields said. “So I am really grateful. You know, it’s been a long time coming for this year. But I’m grateful.”
Grateful is an understatement considering the look on Shields’ face as he talks about this past season.
Throughout the conversation Shields wore a broad smile, almost continuously and laughed frequently. The pure excitement on her face reflected the fulfillment of all the hard work and dedication she had put in over the past five years.
With the innate athleticism and skills that Shields possesses, there’s much for her to anticipate even beyond competing for a national title. She holds a genuine possibility of playing professionally in the coming year or so, a goal she is eager to pursue once the current season concludes.
“I want to go pro. I made that decision this year,” Shields said. “I love volleyball. My body feels great, you know and I want to try to travel a little bit. I’ve never been out of the country.”
The prospect of checking off multiple bucket list items in her future goals excites Shields and she is currently in the midst of accomplishing several of them.
With contacts in reach for professional opportunities and her eyes set on Europe, she has a bright future ahead of her.
For now, Shields is all in on Sun Devil volleyball and is actively focused on helping her team beat Georgia in their first round of the NCAA Tournament and making it to the championship game to bring home a victory to The Valley.
“I don’t want to be distracted. I want to stay focused on the tournament,” Shields said. “I just haven’t started anything because I want my full focus to be present.”
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