Over the course of its season, the University of Utah volleyball team has battled through adversity, but a match against the Texas Longhorns might be the teams toughest task yet. The Longhorns come into Sweet Sixteen play with only two losses on their year, plus they’re on a 20-match win streak.
Those numbers don’t worry senior Tawnee Luafalemana. Utah will be go into the match with the underdog mentality to motivate the team as it appears in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2008.
“I feel like people are like ‘Oh, it’s Utah,’” Luafalemana said. “We’re excited and we’re prepared.”
Preparing is what Utah did in practice this week. The team used three men to replicate the strength that the Longhorns have on their team. Texas is averaging 3.24 blocks a set and they are being able to limit teams to an average hitting percentage of .154. Those stats rank them in the top 20 nationally. The Longhorns haven’t lost since their season opener when they were beat by then ranked No. 12 Florida.
“They’re a very good team, they’re a very physical team, very athletic team,” said head coach Beth Launiere. “So we’re going to have to match them at the net and then we’ll see where we are in the back row.”
The Longhorns have four players who were named to the All-Big 12 First team. One of those players is Chiaka Ogbogu, who ranks No. 12 in the nation with 167 total blocks. She is averaging 1.70 blocks per set, and she is also ranked No. 14 in the nation with a hitting percentage of .404, which led the Big 12 Conference.
As the Utes look to make a deep run in the tournament, Launiere has increased the intensity level at practice.
“She definitely is more intense, which I think she needs to be because we’re obviously playing better teams and bigger teams,” Luafalemana said. “She mentioned today [Thursday] that from here on out, anyone we play is going to be good. They’re going to get kills on us and we can’t get frustrated with those kind of things.”
Utah will look to seniors Adora Anae and Carly Trueman, who both present a challenge at the net with their ability and strength, as well as sophomore setter Bailey Choy, who is averaging 9.49 assists per set, to help guide the team.
“I think that the game of volleyball always comes down to serving and passing and I think we’ve been doing a nice job of that,” Launiere said. “But we have a work cut out for us against just a very athletic Texas team.”
Launiere credits her teams chemistry as the reason to why Utah has made it this far into postseason play.
“I think the chemistry of this team is special. We’ve worked hard in the offseason to make sure that we’re all on the same page,” Launiere said. “We’ve done a lot of talking and a lot of communicating, and a lot of just kind of off the court things that have allowed us to come together that much stronger at the end of the season.”
The match gets underway at 7 p.m. in Palo Alto, California. If the Utes beat the Longhorns they will face the winner of the Stanford versus Wisconsin game in the Stanford Regional Final on Saturday, Dec. 9.