Advantage: Utah

The BYU volleyball team had all the reasons in the world to come to Crimson Court with extra motivation-maybe even with a chip on its collective shoulder. It had already suffered one loss to its archrival Utes earlier this season-and at its own court in Provo, no less.

If that weren’t enough to get the team going, excuses were also being bandied about its earlier loss to the Utes- namely, the fact that star junior Erica Lott was held out of that match with a back injury.

Well, the team was at full strength Friday night when the Cougars invaded Crimson Court, and the result was the same: a victory for the Utes, their 18th in a row. In fact, their effort this weekend was an even more impressive one than the previous victory, as they disposed of their southern rivals in three consecutive games, picking up the regular-season series sweep.

“I can’t really express how big it is,” U head coach Beth Launiere said. “That’s a very good volleyball team. I know they came in here with all their players and ready to go, and I thought we played a good volleyball match.”

With the victory, the Utes have now won four matches in a row over BYU and 14 of the last 15 meetings-the U’s one blemish coming Sept. 28, 2005, in a 3-1 Cougar win in Provo.

Aside from that, the Utes have established themselves as the dominant power of the conference. Utah and BYU came into Friday’s showdown with identical 19-2 records, but the results speak for themselves.

“Any time you can beat your rivals 2-0 is a good thing-not just our rivals, but a team we’re fighting for a Mountain West championship with, national rankings and all that stuff,” Launiere said.

The Utes’ 2006 regular season has been-so far at least-the team’s best of Launiere’s tenure. Needless to say, the postseason will tell the real tale, but this year’s squad has not only vaulted into the nation’s top 10 but shattered the school record for consecutive victories. With that, of course, has come added pressure and, some might say, a certain level of susceptibility to that pressure. After all, anyone can have an off night.

A chief concern for Launiere and her coaching staff-indeed, a concern for any team in any sport hanging on to such an extended winning streak-has been avoiding complacency. But not only has this team stepped up to its challenge, but the possibility of complacency was certainly not a problem Friday night.

Crimson Court is considered one of the most raucous home crowds in MWC volleyball, but nothing compares to the annual showdown with BYU-and never was that more apparent than Friday night, especially with the national buzz surrounding the team continuing to grow with each successive victory.

Utah sophomore outside hitter Airial Salvo said after the match that the atmosphere in this rivalry is always a boost, “especially here, where the fans are a lot closer to the players?I just love playing in this atmosphere. It’s awesome.”

It’s safe to say the Utes have a distinct home-court advantage, and it’s also safe to say the Cougars understand that all too well, having not won in Salt Lake City since 1999.

A lot has happened with both programs since then; as for the Utes, they seem to be at a point right now where they are without any true weaknesses. They lead the conference in kills, assists and blocks, rank second in digs and are holding opponents to a conference-best .101 hitting percentage, with BYU holding a slight edge in hitting (.286-.282).

Still, in the MWC standings, only two matches separate Utah from BYU. But from the standpoint of their head-to-head meetings, the two clubs seem a little bit further apart.

Lennie Mahler

Airial Salvo tries to pancake the ball as teammate Connie Dangerfield watches during the Utes’ win over BYU. Salvo finished the game with 14 kills.

Lennie Mahler

Kathryn Lovell spikes the ball toward a BYU opponent at Crimson Court on Friday.