Utah volleyball has accomplished slow, steady build into Pac-12 power as another NCAA Tournament run arrives

Utes will open 48-team NCAA Tournament Thursday against either LIU or Pitt. A win puts them into their third Sweet 16 in four seasons

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Head Coach, Beth Launiere has a word with the officials, in volleyball action between Utah and BYU, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Launiere this week is once again taking the Utes to the NCAA Volleyball Tournament.

When the Pac-12 decided to add the University of Utah ahead of the 2011-12 academic year, Beth Launiere’s volleyball program was already making a habit of going to the NCAA Tournament.

The Utes had been to the Sweet 16 a couple of times during the previous decade, they were top-25 caliber, they were winning the Mountain West title in some years, and at least competing for it in others.

Launiere had herself a sturdy, contending program. When the Pac-12 called, she knew things were going to change, and her program had to be ready to change with it.

“There was trepidation from every coach on The Hill, and if any coach tells you any different, they’re crazy,” Launiere told The Salt Lake Tribune recently as she and the Utes prepared for their NCAA Tournament opener on Thursday in Omaha, Neb. “We all knew this would really be something and we all needed the resources put into our programs if we were going to be successful, but I can also tell you I believed we could get to where we are now. I was pretty confident [former athletic director] Dr. [Chris] Hill knew and understood the need for resources to be put into our program, and the whole university came through supporting us, which was critical.”

Launiere likened what this last decade-plus in the Pac-12 has been like to when she first took over in 1990, when the athletic department was still a member of the WAC. At that time, it was a slow and steady build. The Utes went 18-15 in 1993 and by 1998, they would start regularly going to the NCAA Tournament, cracking the Sweet 16 in 2001 and 2008.

When Utah arrived in the Pac-12 for the 2011 season, it did not finish last in is annually one of the top women’s volleyball conferences in the nation, which, in hindsight, was critical in terms of moving the program forward.

“I was proud of our program for finishing ninth in the first two years because there was such a perception that we would come in and just be horrible, not just in volleyball, but in every sport,” Launiere said. “We started off not 12th, and it’s been a slow build, but we’ve done it. It felt a lot like building a program when I first got here. It’s a slow build, that’s how you do it if you want to do it the right way, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Just like at the tail end of the Mountain West days in the late 2000s, Launiere has herself a steady, contending program. The difference now is, the Utes are doing it on a higher playing field, under much brighter lights.

When the 14th-seeded Utes take the floor late Thursday night at CHI Health Center Omaha for a second-round match against either Long Island University or Pitt (8:30 p.m., ESPN3), they will be making their fifth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance and seventh overall as a member of the Pac-12.

Two of Utah’s last three NCAA Tournament appearances (2017, 2019) have yielded Sweet 16 berths, and it will be three of four if the Utes win late Thursday evening. From there, getting beyond the Sweet 16 for the first time is likely to require going through third-seeded Minnesota, the Big Ten runner-up behind unbeaten, No. 1 overall seed Wisconsin.

That potentially-difficult task would fall in line with what has been an unprecedented, difficult season for Utah, not to mention every other team in the country thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been unbelievably hard, and no coach will tell you anything different,” Launiere said. “It’s trying to build a team when all you can do is isolate them as often as possible. It’s trying to build a team, trying to build momentum when you have stoppages constantly. It’s trying to keep the excitement through the grind when you don’t have the Huntsman Center full of fans, or no fans when you go on the road to the California schools.

“It’s been very difficult. You can’t say enough about these young people about how they’ve responded and endured through all of this, and coaches, too. I think we’ve all been in it together. You talk about life lessons, this year has been full of them. When you talk about things being out of your control, it was gut-wrenching, some of the things out of our control, but we still had to respond.”

Instead of the normal 64-team NCAA Tournament, this will be a 48-team event contested entirely in Omaha, just as the NCAA Tournaments for men’s and women’s basketball were contested in Indianapolis and San Antonio, respectively.

Should Utah win on Thursday night, the Sweet 16 will take place on Sunday at a time still to be determined.