Dani Drews is the University of Utah’s most-decorated student-athlete, so the fact she is returning this fall for a fifth and final season with the volleyball program counts as significant.
Last season’s Pac-12 Player of the Year, a three-time AVCA All-American and twice the AVCA’s Pacific South Region Player of the Year, Drews is able to return for a fifth season after the NCAA froze the eligibility clock for fall and winter athletes in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 30, 15 days after the Utes’ unprecedented, unorthodox spring season ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Pitt in Omaha, Neb., the athletic department announced Drews would return for a fifth season.
Drews returning to longtime head coach Beth Launiere’s lineup this fall was not a foregone conclusion. Yes, the Sandy native had eligibility she could use, but she also had contract offers from professional clubs in Europe on the table.
“I talked to clubs in Germany, France, a little bit in Poland and Greece, too,” Drews told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It was at the very beginning stages of talking. There would have been other options had I committed to doing it.”
For Drews to finally reach a decision took some reflection, some soul-searching, and ultimately, the realization of what she would be missing out on.
Shortly after the spring season began, Launiere told The Tribune that she expected Drews to return in the fall. About halfway through the 18-match slate, Launiere and Drews talked a bit, agreeing to not dive into the matter until the season was over.
The week after Utah returned from Omaha, Launiere began reviewing and dissecting the season via exit meetings with her players. To that end, Drews went over to Launiere’s home. The two sat in a pair of Adirondack chairs on the patio, had coffee, and talked.
Launiere knew and appreciated the fact Drews had professional offers to consider, but she also knew Drews hadn’t signed anything, so she sought to lay out the situation.
Regardless of what Drews chose to do, either scenario included a quick turnaround off a spring season. She would leave for Europe in August without, as Drews noted, her husband for the first season, or she would be in Salt Lake City this summer, getting ready for a college season that is scheduled to begin toward the end of August.
From an outside perspective, Drews had a senior season. Utah played 18 matches, it got an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, where it received the No. 14 overall seed. As Launiere points out, the inside perspective was much different, with daily COVID-19 testing and medical protocols set forth by Utah and the Pac-12 acting as a constant reminder that nothing was normal in trying to get a season played.
That was a major selling factor by Launiere, the opportunity for Drews to have a second senior season, one that would offer normalcy on her way out. If Drews opted for the four-month college season, Launiere knew the money in Europe would still be waiting for Drews on the other side.
“I really wanted her to have a senior year, and this wasn’t it, honestly,” Launiere said. “We had a senior night, but it didn’t feel right. I just painted the picture of more fans in the stands, a full schedule, hopefully not playing in masks. It’s a four-month season. Play a real season, we’ll finish in December, we’ll celebrate right, and she will have no problem getting a contract in January.
“I just mapped out the scenario here. After we spoke, I was really at peace with whatever choice she was going to make because I thought I had done right by her to have that conversation about her options, give her my perspective, and then listen to her.”
The day after they spoke, Drews texted Launiere to let her know she would be back in the fall.
“I thought it was really helpful and insightful to just be able to make a decision on what I wanted to do because I was a little bit torn between coming back or going to play professionally,” Drews said of that exit meeting. “When she laid out the timeline of everything, looking at the logic of it, it didn’t make sense to skip out on an opportunity to finish my college career on a higher note than this last season. We had games canceled, fans weren’t allowed and everything was just kind of rushed. There were a ton of things the coaches had to do on a daily basis to be able to have a practice. Having more of a, hopefully, normal season where things are back to the usually scheduled program will be nice.”
Instead of roughly nine months between seasons, Launiere, Drews and the Utes now face a truncated three-month offseason, but nobody seems terribly worried about that.
Drews will take this month off to decompress before spending the second week of June in Anaheim working out with the United States national team. Once she returns from Southern California, focus will turn back to Utah. An official report date for the roster is to be determined, but as is customary, players will be on campus working out during the summer months.
“She has given so much to this program in so many ways, not just on the court, but everything that comes along with it,” Launiere said. “She’s got a great attitude, she’s really positive, she’s a great leader, she understands her role in terms of being a high-profile athlete. She always does the interview. She always says yes, and she is a great representative of our program.”