Utes senior outside hitter Adora Anae remembers the lessons from her first season with the program. The lone freshman starter in 2014, she helped lead the Utes to the verge of an upset victory over host Nebraska in the second round of the NCAA Tournament only to lose a heartbreaker in five sets.
“From then on, I realized what it takes to be in the national tournament and what it takes to get there and what mentality you have to have coming into those matches,” Anae said.
Anae and her teammates will start this year’s postseason journey in front of their home crowd as Utah (22-9) hosts the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on Thursday and Friday.
The 11th-seeded Utah takes on Cleveland State (22-7) at 7 p.m. in the opening round on Thursday. High Point (24-7) and Purdue (22-9) will play in the other opening-round match on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. The winners will meet at 7 p.m. Friday.
Anae, a three-time All-Pac-12 Conference honoree who became the program’s all-time leader in kills earlier this season, and her classmates learned the value of focusing on one goal at a time. So far they’ve been exceedingly successful.
The Utes wanted to be among the top four teams in the Pac-12. Check. They had the fourth-best record in conference play (13-7), their highest finish since joining the conference.
They wanted to be in a position to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Check. They earned the highest seed ever going into the tournament.
Now, they’ve got their sights set on advancing past this weekend to the NCAA Regional.
“Every single volleyball player in this nation wants to be a national champion, but what it takes to get there is step by step,” Anae said. “I think we’re very process-oriented. The seniors want it as much as all of our teammates. We have a lot freshmen stepping up to the plate. We’re going to take it far this year. We’re confident, and we’re going to step the pedal to the medal and go as far as we want to.”
The Utes went 10-4 at home this season, and the program hasn’t hosted opening round NCAA Tournament matches since 2005. They’re 3-1 all time in NCAA Tournament matches at home.
Utes coach Beth Launiere described her team as prepared as focused going into the tournament opener at home. The players’ approach going into postseason hasn’t veered much, if any, from the way they went about their business throughout the regular season.
“I think it’s exciting and it’s great for our athletes, I’m happy for our players because who wouldn’t want to play in front of their fans in the NCAAs,” Launiere said. “It’s exciting. And I’m happy for our fans. I’m happy for the volleyball people in the state of Utah because they’re going to get to see NCAA volleyball this weekend.”
The Utes and Cleveland State will meet for the first time in program history. With the unfamiliar opponent, the Utes staff has been giving the players more to digest each day.
“[Thursday] night it’s about us,” Launiere said. “It’s absolutely about us, our execution, our mindset, our side of the net. We talk about that all the time. Once match time comes, it’s about our side of the net.”
The Utes finished the season ranked No. 13 in the latest AVCA Top 25 poll, and they remained ranked throughout the season (15 weeks). They also enter tournament play having won four out of five matches to end the regular season.
Nine Pac-12 teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament, the most of any conference in the country. That group includes defending national champion Stanford.
“We’re excited and we’re ready,” senior middle blocker Tawnee Luafalemana said on Wednesday. “We went over our scout today, and I feel like we have a game plan and we’re ready.”