Utes may get better, even lacking an All-American

Can you lose an All-American and get better in the process?

Beth Launiere thinks so.

The veteran Utah women’s volleyball coach is optimistic heading into her 14th year at the helm of the spiking Utes.

“People think, ‘How can you lose (All-American hitter) Kim Turner and still be successful?'” Launi ere said. “I think we will surprise people with how much depth we will have.”

Last season, the Utes finished 23rd in the country, even though Turner was the only real offensive threat. With experienced players coming back and new talent from several different sources, Launiere expects last year’s deficiency to turn into a strength.

“This year we have two big hitters in Shelly Sommerfeldt and Lyndsey Henderson,” Launiere said. “We also add Brazilian Liana Bortoto, who was a junior college All-American. She also has the potential to be our best offensive player.”

Freshman Emillie Toone arrives at Utah with the potential to make an immediate impact. Toone could add wrinkles to the offense and defense given her height (6 feet, 7 inches).

Another offensive fresh face is Katrena Ellett. Ellett is back from her mission and Launiere is expecting big things from Ellett’s senior campaign. “She will add a lot,” Launiere said. “She’s the most competitive player I’ve ever coached.”

Even with all the potential offensive weapons, Launiere is quick to point out the equally strong defensive unit.

“We lost libero Jackie Morrill to graduation, but Connie Dangerfield is very talented. She’s a little young, but brings a lot of defense.”

The setter position is in the equally good hands of senior Kelsey Kartchner. This summer, Kartchner is training with the USA Volleyball A2 team for the second straight season.

Since the Utes employ a 6-2 set, a second good setter is essential. Senior Tracy Neumeier will line up next to Kartchner.

Even with all of the stockpiled talent, the Utes will need to step up their game in the very competitive Mountain West Conference. Launiere realizes that the conference championship will not come easily. “Colorado State is the reigning champion and beat us three times last year,” she said. “They have their whole starting lineup returning. We will have to find a way to beat them. BYU is also much better and they are always tough.”

In addition to the conference slate, several national powerhouses come to Crimson Court. UCLA is ranked in the top five, Hawaii is always a national title contender and Notre Dame will provide a late-season challenge.

With all these top teams invading the Utes’ home turf, Launiere expects attendance to be consistently high.

“Just come to Crimson Court one time. Volleyball is fast action, the players get to know the fans and we could be very good,” Launiere said.

Launiere has no false ideas about volleyball’s place on the campus sports landscape. Even with increased attendance, volleyball will have a hard time achieving the revenue streams of basketball and football. But that doesn’t mean they can’t all get along.

“Camaraderie is at an all-time high on this campus,” Launiere said. “Last season Urban (Meyer) and I started an exhibition game at Heritage Commons that pitted volleyball players and football players. It has blossomed into something really cool.” Launiere points to Meyer going to most of the matches, along with new basketball coach Ray Giacoletti promising to swing by as well. “The enthusiasm among the sports team is awesome,” she added.

With all the tools in place, Launiere is ready for the volleyball program to take new steps. “I have a goal to go someplace we haven’t been before,” Launiere said, hinting that the Utes’ recent history of Sweet Sixteen finishes will no longer be good enough. “We are in the midst of our best recruiting,” she said. “A year from now, I expect the best Utah recruiting class ever.”

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