Utes drop MWC final, lose seed in NCAA tournament

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

The No. 9 U volleyball team had won every regular season conference game this entire year, carried a 25-match winning streak and played for the Mountain West Conference tournament championship. But all of the Utes’ accolades and accomplishments couldn’t overcome a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Colorado State in the championship, as the U was not given a seed in the NCAA tournament.

Despite losing the championship game and their chance at an automatic berth, the Utes still earned an at-large into the tournament.

“I thought that our season warranted a top-16 seed,” U head coach Beth Launiere said. “With that said, we have to let it go and worry about our first-round opponent. Whether you play them in the first, fourth or sixth rounds, eventually you have to beat good teams.”

The Utes will have their work cut out for them this weekend with a first-round matchup against Michigan State in Los Angeles. If they are able to get by the Spartans, Utah will face the winner of the UAB-UCLA match. UCLA will host the first and second rounds for the four teams.

The Utes probably would have had a seed locked up if they had finished off the MWC tournament with a win, but a 2-0 lead wasn’t enough to lock up the Rams, who were able to mount an unprecedented comeback. Colorado State outside-hitter Mekana Barnes blew up in the match, tallying kill after kill to lead her team back from a 20-11 deficit in game three and sneak out of Las Vegas with the championship.

“The Rams started to play aggressive and earned every point with their effort,” Launiere said. “I thought we matched them, but we just couldn’t get a break in the last three games.”

The loss to Colorado State marks the first Utah defeat since Sept. 2, when the Utes lost to USC in Southern California. But the team isn’t ready to give up just yet. Rather than dwell on the defeat and let it affect their play in the NCAA tournament, the Utes are taking the loss in a positive light.

“We don’t have the pressure to maintain our streak anymore,” outside-hitter Whitney Webb said. “We’ve been winning for such a long time, but now we know we’re human and we have to play our best every night to win.”

Utah started off the tournament in solid fashion, setting and spiking its way to an easy sweep over No. 8 San Diego State. Utah hit a season-high .455 and chalked up an impressive 11 aces on the way to victory.

The second round was fairly similar, with the Utes controlling the tempo and beating UNLV in three games. Outside-hitter Airial Salvo led the offensive attack for the U, stroking 16 kills in the winning effort. The sophomore was one of four Utah players selected to the all-tournament team. Salvo was joined by middle-blockers Emillie Toone and Lori Baird and setter Sydney Anderson.

With the conference schedule and tournament now in hindsight, the Utes are looking to focus their attention on this weekend.

“This team knows how to win, and we’re going to get back on track and refocused,” Launiere said. “We would have liked to win (the championship), but in the big scheme of things, it doesn’t matter too much. It’s a whole different ballgame now.”

Lennie Mahler

Whitney Webb goes up for a kill in the Utes’ Nov. 9 match with Wyoming at Crimson Court. Webb had 18 kills in the Utes’ Mountain West Conference Tournament matchup with Colorado State in Las Vegas.