Utes ready to make noise on national stage

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

Beth Launiere and the No. 11 U volleyball team should all feel pretty confident about where they are heading in the NCAA tournament. After all, they have won 25 of their last 26 matches and boast the No. 1 blocking defense in the nation. They are also returning five starters from last year’s team, which was defeated in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

They should be feeling pretty confident right now–but definitely not cocky. The Utes have one of the tougher first/second round brackets in the nation and it all begins tonight when they travel to southern California to take on Michigan State.

The Spartans (19-11, 10-10 Big-10) started their season off hot, winning nine of the first 10 matches, but have since tailed off in Big-10 play. Six of their losses have come at the hands of Minnesota, Penn State and Wisconsin, all of which were ranked in the Top-12 when they beat the Spartans.

Michigan State can attribute much of its success this season to two outside-hitters, through which the majority of the offense runs. Katie Johnson and Ashley Schatzle have carried the Spartans and will surely be a focus of Launiere and the vaunted U defense. Johnson leads the team and is currently ranked No. 23 in the nation with a 4.69 kill-per-game average. On the other side of the offense, Schatzle rains terror to the tune of 4.62 kills per game. The two of them combined account for more than 55 percent of the Spartans’ total offense.

“Their outside-hitters are extremely talented,” Launiere said. “They control most of the offense, but the whole team has pretty good size. Those two hitters are special, though.”

If the Utes can get past the Spartans, they will play the winner of the UCLA/UAB match later that day. UCLA (29-3, 15-3 PAC-10), which is playing host for the first two rounds, has dominated opponents this entire season and is expected to beat UAB.

The Bruins started off the season with 20 consecutive wins, but couldn’t get through their PAC-10 schedule unscathed, falling at the hands of Stanford twice and losing in Washington once.

Despite the setbacks, No. 4 seed UCLA has plenty to be happy about heading into the tourney. Middle-blocker Nana Meriweather currently ranks first in the nation with a .465 hitting percentage. The 6-foot-1 senior doesn’t just get it done on offense, either. She also ranks second in the country with 1.92 blocks per game. Meriweather trails only Utah middle-blocker Emillie Toone for the coveted top spot.

Meriweather was one of three Bruins who received first-team All-PAC-10 honors. Also snagging a trophy were setter Nellie Spicer and outside-hitter Katie Carter. This is Spicer’s second such honor and she is currently ranked sixth in the nation with 13.71 assists per game.

The Utes will have their hands full trying to stop the diverse attacking schemes of both Michigan State and UCLA this weekend, but the atmosphere should be no problem for the young team.

After all, the Utes have been here before. Last year, they drew a first-round meeting against Loyola Marymount, then had to face off against the No. 4 seed Arizona. Utah’s youthful inexperience stopped them from upsetting the Wildcats that day, but the Utes should once again get the opportunity to knock off the No. 4 seed this year.

“It’s good to know that this team has already been to the tournament and experienced it,” Toone said. “If you lose now, you go home, and you have to have that mentality if you want to go anywhere in the tournament.”

Lennie Mahler

Whitney Webb serves in a match against Wyoming on Nov.9. The Utes play their debut game on the national stage against Michigan State tonight at 6