Utah volleyball player Berkeley Oblad spent nearly 12 months rehabilitating from an elbow injury, and then worried for the past two weeks after how her right arm would respond when the season started.
Her anxiety was compounded Friday night when Utes were wobbling against No. 7 Kentucky, after having dominated the Wildcats. Oblad’s elbow remained strong, and so did her teammates. Utah completed the upset in a sweep: 25-19, 25-16, 25-23.
“I’ve never been part of a team that has fought through a match like that,” Oblad said after the first day of the season-opening Utah Classic at the Huntsman Center. “In my four, five years now here, if we’ve gotten pushed back like that, we fall apart. I’m so beyond proud of the team for fighting back.”
The Utes’ blocking, anchored by Oblad, was impressive against a good offensive team. Kentucky’s .056 hitting percentage tells the story; so does Utah’s 13 blocks in a three-set match.
“Great effort, both physically and mentally, to stand up to a team like that,” said Ute coach Beth Launiere, who launched her 30th season earlier Friday with a sweep of Saint Mary’s.
The Wildcats’ visit, a return trip from Utah’s having opened the 2017 season in Kentucky’s tournament, is part of Launiere’s upgraded schedule that she hoped would provide a gauge of her team this weekend and, theoretically, build some NCAA Tournament credentials. She was willing to label it “a signature win,” but careful about overreacting, reminding her players that a bunch of good Pac-12 teams also will be coming to town.
This was a nice start, though. Oblad’s return had a lot to do with it, in a performance that evoked “the Berkeley I remembered for all of her career,” Launiere said.
“I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time,” Oblad said, “playing without pain and having fun. Unbelievable.”
That’s a reasonable description for how the unranked Utes controlled the match. Yet in the third set, there were moments when the Wildcats seemed capable of extending of extending things, and then who knows what may have happened. Two years ago in Lexington, Ky., the Utes lost the first two sets, won the next two and then lost a tough fifth set in a pairing of teams that would reach the NCAA’s Sweet 16.
This team, the home team finished the sweep. “What I liked about it is we stayed pretty steady,” Launiere said. “we just responded and made big plays.”
Dani Drews’ 11th kill ended the match, after Oblad had posted nine kills and five blocks. That followed her nine-kill/eight-block effort against Saint Mary’s, as the Utes opened the season with a sweep: 25-20, 26-24, 25-18.
Kenzie Koerber led Utah with 14 kills and Drews added 10. Utah will conclude the tournament Saturday by meeting No. 23 Cal Poly. The Mustangs were swept by Kentucky and Saint Mary’s on Friday.