Utah volleyball: Utes eager for first tourney appearance since 2008
Those living room talks with recruits just got easier for Utah coach Beth Launiere.
The last five years have been a struggle for the volleyball program. The Utes last visited the NCAA Tournament in 2008, when they went to the Sweet 16. But a move to the Pac-12 cost the Utes a few down years and put the program in a position of having to prove itself to perspective players.
Utah will return to the postseason Friday, a place Launiere said it belongs annually. The Utes will face Yale, the Ivy League champions, and will be favored to move on to Saturday's second round, where the opponent likely will be Penn State, the host team.
"We've worked so hard to get to where we are," Launiere said. "Now we can show players that the program is taking and has taken major steps. We've competed nationally, we've competed in the Pac-12 and we have a chance to play well against some major competition. We're excited about the position that we're in, and we want to go out and be successful."
The Utes are the favored team. They are bigger, especially at the net. Launiere said Utah's floor defense is much better this year than it has been in the past. She challenged her team at the outset of the season to get better in that area, and the Utes have responded.
"We're going to have to be very solid in all areas," senior middle blocker Erin Redd-Brandon said. "We know that Yale is a good team and that they have a lot of talent and experience. We're trying to prepare for everything, but we're confident that we can be successful if we go out and play the way we're capable."
The Utes won 20 matches this season after going 14-19 in 2012. They won their first 11 matches of the campaign and challenged themselves out of conference. Then they won nine matches in the Pac-12, one of the best leagues in the country.
Shelby Dalton leads the team with 324 kills. Kendall Cygan has 688 assists and Chelsey Schofield has 381 digs this season. The Utes are a deep team, and the statistics show evidence of that depth.
That drives their confidence heading into this week. Teams like USC, Washington and Stanford are among the best in the nation, and all have a shot at advancing to the Final Four. And while Utah lost to all three, the Utes were competitive and head into the postseason feeling like they can play and beat anyone.
"There's nothing we haven't seen in the last two months," Redd-Brandon said. "We know that we earned our way to this point and we're not satisfied. We want to go out and play well, and if we do that, we think we can be successful."
NCAA volleyball Tournament
• BYU (22-6) vs. Arizona State (19-13), 8 p.m. MST
At University Park, Pa.
• Utah (20-12) vs. Yale (20-4), 3 p.m. MST