After losing middle blocker Berkeley Oblad to a season-ending elbow injury in September, Utah women's volleyball coach Beth Launiere went through various lineup changes in a process she described as “getting people in the right seats on the bus.”
The Utes' season later became a case of keeping the bus from careening off the road. Utah stood 13-12 overall and 5-9 in the Pac-12 after a weekend trip that included loss at No. 2 Stanford (forgivable) and 10th-place California (less forgivable).
As a frame of reference, that was in early November, right when Utah’s football season was at a critical checkpoint. And this is one story that allows for a crossover comparison within the Ute athletic department, considering how volleyball start Dani Drews is the sister of football’s Barton brothers, Jackson and Cody.
In any case, the volleyball team turned around its season. The Utes won five of their last six conference matches to finish 10-10, in a three-way for sixth place. In the highly competitive Pac-12, that’s more than worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid. The Utes will meet Denver on Friday (4 p.m.) at BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse in Provo.
That's a reward for the Utes' perseverance and bonding after a stretch of the season when, as senior Lauga Gauta said, “Nobody was getting along when we were losing.”
The Utes regrouped, thanks to a meeting that followed that Bay Area trip. “There was a point when we were like, 'Guys, we've got to get this together,' ” Drews said. “Talking about that and people realizing the [NCAA] tournament was still in reach really changed things for us.”
Utah's closing stretch included wins over top-20 teams Arizona and USC. A three-set win over the Trojans in Los Angeles probably solidified the Utes' NCAA credentials, and then they beat Colorado at home last Friday to reach .500 in Pac-12 play, a major achievement for a young team.
“Every single person has contributed at some point during this season,” Launiere said.
Drews emerged as an All-Pac-12 player as a sophomore, breaking school records for kills per set in each of the last two matches. And there's more to her skill set, with growth in defense, passing and blocking. “Everybody sees the attacking,” Launiere said, “but every aspect of her game had to improve, and it did.”
Defensive specialist Brianna Doehrmann and outside hitter Kenzie Koerber received all-conference honorable mention and young players such as Megan Yett, Kennedi Evans, Phoebe Grace and Lauren Sprole became vital contributors.
With big opportunities ahead this weekend, including a potential rematch with No. 4 overall seed BYU on Saturday in the round of 32, this already has become a satisfying season for Launiere.
She and her staff have done more teaching than ever, she said, and the players remained receptive. “We were pretty relentless,” Launiere said, “and they were hungry. That’s what made the difference.”
NCAA WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL TOURNAMENT
Friday’s First Round Matches at BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse
• Utah (18-13) vs. Denver (27-2), 4 p.m.
• No. 4 BYU (27-1) vs. Stony Brook (21-8), 7 p.m. (BYUtv)
Saturday’s Second-Round Match at Smith Fieldhouse
• First round winners, 7 p.m.