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‘Tears and cheers’: Alumni Association recognizes 50th anniversary of Sun Devil Volleyball

Group photo of past members of Sun Devil Volleyball.

ASU Volleyball players from the past 50 years came together at Old Main to celebrate the program's success. Photo courtesy the ASU Alumni Association

September 27, 2023

Before Mary Littlewood could speak, clutching a microphone as she stood in Carson Ballroom at Old Main, she first had to wait for the applause to subside.

A standing ovation had interrupted her message to the crowd. Or maybe it bought her time.

“I’m not even sure what to say,” the 89-year-old said with a chuckle before a crowd north of 100 attendees, all of whom stood to pay their respects to the first head coach in Sun Devil Volleyball history.

On an afternoon like this, in which past players, coaches and staffers gathered to celebrate the team’s 50th anniversary, it was necessary to pay extra respect to Littlewood, the woman who laid the foundation for volleyball at Arizona State University in the fall of 1973.

An emotional Littlewood encapsulated the magic of this year’s Affinity Reunion, an annual event held by the ASU Alumni Association to invite alumni of a particular school, academic affiliation, organization, club or group back to campus to reconnect and celebrate the legacy they shared at ASU.

It was a weekend, as some former players referred to it, that served as a perfect balance between “tears and cheers.” Old teammates gathered once more, trading stories and reminiscing on what it meant to be Sun Devils.

They convened for a two-hour luncheon on Saturday, plus an on-field recognition that evening at the Sun Devil football game.

But no event summarized the ascension of the volleyball program — and women’s sports at-large — more than the invitation to watch the Sun Devils beat Pac-12 rival Washington at Mullett Arena on Sunday.

To some, it was a sight they never thought imaginable.

Former players whose careers began in the 1970s remembered a different game-day scene. When they repped the maroon and gold, they played in PE East (now known as Bulldog Hall), a condensed, stuffy gymnasium with collapsed bleachers.

But today, Sun Devil Volleyball plays in the 5,000-person-seat Mullett Arena. Fans across the Valley nearly filled the stadium to see the red-hot Sun Devils, just days after recording a sell-out for a mid-week match against in-state rival Arizona.

How times have changed.

This was more evident than ever when, during the luncheon, five players from different decades took part in a panel led by emcee Paola Boivin. Nancy Corea (1977–80), Mindy (Gowell) Rich (198791), Sydney (Donahue) Sicoli (200407), Nora Tuioti Mariner (201114) and Shannon Shields (2020present) took to the stage to share their experiences of being a student-athlete, ranging from game-day traditions to class and practice schedules, traveling logistics, away matches and more.

Their experiences were drastic, and their responses drew laughter from the crowd. But sitting shoulder to shoulder onstage, their stories represented one common bond: These were all Sun Devils.

No matter the decade they played, they are Sun Devils for life, forever linked because of the contributions and efforts they made to make the volleyball program what it is today.

A weekend of celebration and reflection was felt among all participants, but especially for first-year Head Coach JJ Van Niel.

"The whole event was special, really humbling,” he said. “The turnout was unreal. I've been involved in some alumni stuff in the past, and it was far and away the best turnout I've ever seen. I was geeked out because you look, and it was like, every table there'd be like six or seven players from the same team, and this is from 20 years ago, from a long time ago. Decades have passed, and they're telling stories, and they're having fun, and they're still friends with each other. That's really special.

“You're going to have the rest of your life with this whole group, and as we know, at ASU, we've got a huge alumni network. That's really powerful for later in life because you need to lean on someone. You've got a support group, and it doesn't have to be just from your team. It's also from your alumni.”

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