Volleyball heads down the stretch with confidence

The final weeks of the season are upon the U volleyball team, and the Utes face an uphill battle in the Mountain West race the rest of the way.

With a road loss to first place Colorado State over the weekend, the Utes dropped to 7-2 within the conference, two games back of the Rams with just five matches left to play.

A team that came into the season as the favorite to win the regular-season conference championship, Utah now finds itself with only slim hopes of such a title remaining.

This is nothing new for the Utes, however. They have been in this situation before-in each of the last two seasons, in fact.

Two years ago, they finished second in the MWC, yet still went on to win the conference tournament and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

A season ago, Utah struggled on the road during the season and dropped to third place, but pulled off a second straight conference tournament title to earn its fifth consecutive NCAA tourney berth.

So the Utes find themselves in familiar territory-playing catch-up in the conference standings, but still plenty confident they can get it done.

“I don’t think it hurts our confidence,” coach Beth Launiere said. “We talked about it in the locker room right after the loss to Colorado State that we’re not conceding this thing to Colorado State yet. In five matches, anything can happen. All we can do is take care of ourselves and be prepared. We’re going to give it our best shot and do everything we can do.”

As far as the regular season goes, however, the slate certainly favors Colorado State. Already, the Rams have swept the season series from both Utah and BYU, who were their main competition for the conference title, and they have a fairly light schedule the rest of the way.

The Cougars are close to being out of the regular season race, as they stand at 6-3, three behind CSU.

The Utes are still grappling for their position, as they have a realistic chance at finishing anywhere from first to third in the MWC. They still have one game remaining against BYU, whom they defeated in Provo earlier this year.

The Utes host the Cougars next weekend. Until then, they still have this weekend’s opponents, Air Force and New Mexico, to worry about.

Should Colorado State fall in one of its road matches this weekend-and if the U can win its pair-the Utes would still be very much alive in the title hunt.

The Utes do have a couple of things working for them. While CSU is on the road all weekend, Utah is right in its comfort zone at Crimson Court-and Launiere and the U coaching staff have made sure to keep the team healthy and fresh.

“We took Monday and Tuesday off,” Launiere said. “We were beat up physically and mentally. Those were nine tough games [last weekend]. We practiced today and had a great practice. They came in ready to go. I think everyone knows that we’re in the stretch run. We’ve got to be disciplined enough to take care of one match at a time and stay hungry.”

Launiere said that the team’s current situation is not much different from how it was last season, but she has reason to believe this group-despite all the adversity and lineup adjustments the Utes have had to go through-is even better than the 2002 version.

“I think we’re a very similar type of team as last year’s. We have a lot of strengths and we have a couple of things that have really hurt us at times,” Launiere said.

“But we’ve found ways to utilize our strengths. I think that we’re a little stronger team this year in terms of intangibles. I think our leadership is very strong. [Seniors] Kim [Turner], Jackie [Morrill] and Taryn [Horner] are very focused. They have not let this team misstep very much. I think a lot of the intangibles of this team are better than they were a year ago.”

If last year’s late-season performance means anything, that’s good news for the Utes.

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