Utes prep for NCAA tournament

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

Rather than sulk about not being given one of 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament, middle-blocker Emillie Toone and the No. 11 Utah volleyball team are refocusing.

“I’m fine with it,” Toone said. “It’s going to be hard no matter what, so I’m glad they picked us to play Michigan State. It’s the NCAA tournament and it’s never going to be easy, and that’s exactly what we want.”

With her performance in the Mountain West Conference tournament last weekend, Toone re-emerged as the No. 1 blocker in the nation. Toone passed UCLA middle-blocker Nana Meriweather with a 1.93 block-per-game average.

If the Utes are able to get past the Spartans this Friday, they will most likely face off against Meriweather and the rest of the Bruin squad at their home in Los Angeles on Sunday.

The Utes are no strangers to the big-game atmosphere they will face this weekend. Earlier this year, they traveled to Florida and lost a competitive 3-1 match to the Gators. A week later, they gave USC all they could muster in Los Angeles but still came up short in a 3-1 defeat.

Launiere and the Utes are also familiar with the highly competitive feel of the NCAA tournament, traveling to the big dance for a record ninth consecutive time. Launiere feels that the MWC tournament was a great stepping-stone in preparing the Utes for what lies ahead.

“I think the Mountain West Conference tournament was great preparation for us,” Launiere said. “It has a distinct tournament feel to it and all of the pressure that goes along with that.”

U outside-hitter Airial Salvo agrees with her coach, adding that their experiences in previous seasons should help them adapt to the environment.

“I feel like our experience is going to help us a lot,” Salvo said. “Most of the girls on the team played in the tournament a year ago, and the freshmen are pretty experienced as well. (Utah setter) Sydney (Anderson) has been playing in big games her whole life, so it shouldn’t affect anything.”

With the tournament days away, the Utes are not making any drastic changes to their regime. They are simply sticking to the formula that got them 27 regular-season wins and a regular-season MWC championship.

“We’ve done a pretty good job this season of preparing night-in and night-out,” Launiere said. “Winning 25 matches (in a row), I think we know how to prepare pretty well. We’re just going to go about things the same way we always do.”

The Utes will try to rebound this weekend after losing in the MWC tournament championship to Colorado State a week ago. It was the first loss the Utes suffered in nearly three months, and it happened in a dramatic fashion. With a two-game lead, the Utes gave up a 20-11 edge in the third and were beaten in three consecutive games by the Rams. Despite the tough loss, the Utes are not dwelling on it.

“We got a little complacent toward the end of the Colorado State match,” Launiere said. “But that’s going to be a wake-up call for us. We’re definitely taking it as a positive.”

Tyler Cobb

Lori Baird spikes the ball during a season match against Wyoming. The Utes plan to leave thoughts of their MWC tournament loss behind as they head to Los Angeles this weekend to play in the NCAA tournament.