A good season under extraordinary, unorthodox, trying conditions came to a rough ending late Thursday evening for the University of Utah volleyball team.
Playing just their second match over the last 25 days thanks to those extraordinary, unorthodox, trying conditions in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 14th-seeded Utes were swept out of the NCAA Tournament by the University of Pittsburgh, 3-0, at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb.
The Panthers were the aggressors in taking control from the outset, winning the three sets, 25-16, 25-18, and 25-19. That second set featured a 12-4 run to end it.
Utah (13-5), which had received a first-round bye for the 48-team one-site event as a top-16 seed, was bidding to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third time in four seasons. Pitt (18-4) advances to face No. 3 overall seed and Big Ten runner-up Minnesota on Sunday.
“You don’t want to make excuses, but the reality is it’s been a difficult year and there are some other teams that haven’t played a lot towards the end of the season because of COVID as well,” Utes head coach Beth Launiere said. “I just can’t make any excuses. You get out of rhythm and you’re just not in the competitive situations that you have to be in. You can try and simulate in practice, but it’s just not the same. We came, we prepared and Pitt was the better team tonight.”
Utes senior outside hitter Dani Drews, this season’s Pac-12 Player of the Year, finished with 20 of Utah’s 41 kills, seven digs, and a .341 hitting percentage. Classmate Kenzie Koerber, another outside hitter, had 10 kills and nine digs to go along with a .231 hitting percentage.
With the NCAA having frozen the eligibility clock for fall and winter student-athletes in the face of the pandemic, Drews and Koerber, the program’s only two seniors, are expected to return in the fall, at which time the women’s volleyball season will return to its normal time of year.
“You have to be grateful that we’re even here playing in an NCAA Tournament,” Launiere said. “If you had asked me in the fall, I didn’t think there was any way we could get here. I didn’t know how we would have a season. The first time we went to the airport to travel, there was nobody in the airport and we were going to play volleyball. It was surreal. As the season went on, you just adjusted. I’m grateful for the opportunity that we got to play this season, even though it was difficult and short.”