Three Ute volleyball players get taste of a different culture in Japan — and being coached by their arch-rival

(Steve C. Wilson / University of Utah) Dani Drews helped lead the University of Utah past Pitt late Thursday evening in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Omaha, Neb.

Playing for BYU's volleyball coach was far down the list of awkward situations that three Utah athletes encountered during a recent tour of Japan as they competed in seven matches.

Ute hitters Dani Drews and Kenzie Koerber and setter Saige Kaahaaina-Torres played for the U.S. Women's Collegiate National Team that was coached by BYU's Heather Olmstead (the Cougars' Heather Gneiting also competed) and went 1-5-1 against four Japanese teams.

Adjusting to new teammates, scrappy opponents and unusual food were among the challenges the Utes cited, while they enjoyed the cultural experience and learned aspects of volleyball that they can apply to Pac-12 matches.

The Americans faced Nippon Sport Science University, the Japan team for the World University Games, he Japan Women's U20 team and the Okayama Seagulls. The competition was “definitely not what I expected,” said the 6-foot-3 Koerber, who figured her team's height advantage would help more than it did. The Japanese players were surprisingly good blockers and made few mistakes, resulting in long rallies that they usually won.

Kaahaaina-Torres had only one practice to learn the tendencies of her hitters, and then had to adjust during matches because finding holes in the defense was so difficult. Off the court, she'll always remember a sightseeing tour as the players were drenched by rain and became a bonding experience. Koerber recalls arriving in Tokyo, where “we got off the plane and I felt like I was in a video game,” amid the lights and unfamiliar signs.

Ute coach Beth Launiere figures the experience can only help her players. “You can't replicate that kind of competition,” she said. “It's good for them to experience something different and and be a little uncomfortable and have some adversity. … You're going to face adversity, whether it's different systems, playing time, different food, not enough sleep, hot gyms. You just have to learn to deal with that.”

Launiere will be an assistant coach for a U.S. team that competes in the World University Games, July 4-14 at Naples, Italy. The roster includes BYU's Kennedy Eschenberg.

The team is one of three assembled by USA Volleyball this year, with a total of 52 players selected after tryouts in March at Colorado Springs, Colo.