Amid the mild disappointment of not receiving one of the 16 host berths in the NCAA Tournament, Utah women’s volleyball coach Beth Launiere quickly regrouped Sunday night and gave her players their postseason mantra: “Whoever, wherever, whatever it takes.”
That means Illinois, in Provo … and then presumably a match vs. BYU for a Sweet 16 opportunity.
Utah began the season hoping to do something the program had never done. The Utes already have made history with their first top-three finish in the Pac-12, but that achievement was not rewarded with a host’s role next weekend.
The Utes (22-9) are assigned to Provo for the second straight year, facing Illinois in a first-round match Friday (4 p.m.) at Smith Fieldhouse. Utah likely would meet BYU again, the consolation being the Cougars are only the No. 14 seed this year — compared with No. 4 last December, when they reached the Final Four.
BYU beat Utah in four sets at the Huntsman Center in mid-September in a match that statistically was about even.
Utah went 14-6 in conference play to finish third, behind No. 3 overall seed Stanford and No. 8 seed Washington. With a talented, experienced team, Launiere created an aggressive nonconference schedule with the goal of a top-16 seed in her 30th season.
The Utes were No. 16 in the RPI going into their last two regular-season matches. Utah swept last-place Oregon State on Wednesday and 11th-place Colorado on Saturday. But Purdue, which finished fifth in the Big Ten (Illinois was seventh), earned the No. 16 seed.
“I'm sure we were close; it's just the way it worked out,” Launiere said Sunday night, when the players gathered at her home for the selection show. “I think we did everything we could. I don't have any match that I have any regrets about. We played our hearts out all year.”
The Utes beat Denver in Provo last December before being swept by BYU. This year's draw is “motivating, to prove how good we are and how far we can go in the tournament,” said Utah junior Dani Drews. “It's a chance to change what happened last year, hopefully, and do better.”
Senior middle blocker Berkeley Oblad missed the 2018 tournament while redshirting after having elbow surgery. So she enjoyed the selection show a lot more Sunday. “This time, my heart’s pounding, I’m feeling the emotion,” she said. “I’m ready to go.”
Illinois (16-13) went 11-9 to finish in the top half of the 14-team Big Ten. The Illini played in the Final Four last year, losing to Nebraska in five sets in the semifinals. Launiere was an Illinois assistant coach in 1988-89 before coming to Utah.