Ute volleyball comes up short in nationals

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

After a thrilling come-from-behind victory on Friday night against Michigan State, the No. 11 U volleyball team couldn’t muster enough to overcome No. 4 UCLA, falling in three games to end its NCAA tournament aspirations in the second round.

Utah fought back and forth with the Bruins throughout the second and third games, but UCLA middle-blocker Nana Meriweather proved to be too much for the drained Utes, racking up 15 kills and nine blocks to aid the Bruins in a 3-0 win.

“(Utah) was an extremely aggressive team,” Meriweather said. “They really started to pick up their defense in the third game, especially on me, but my teammates supported me and told me to keep swinging, and it worked.”

Facing elimination, the Utes came out with renewed vigor in the third game, going up 22-18 late, but the experience of a battle-tested UCLA team paid off, and the Bruins killed the Utes’ season with a late run. Utah outside-hitter Whitney Webb turned in a brilliant performance despite the loss, knocking down 17 kills and grabbing 18 digs.

“We knew we were a few plays away from taking the game so we knew we had to come out strong from the beginning, but it wasn’t enough,” Webb said after the match.

Kathryn Lovell and Emillie Toone also pitched in solid matches for the U, picking up 12 and 10 kills, respectively.

The Utes pieced together a string of runs throughout the match, but seemingly every time they had the momentum going in their favor, UCLA head coach Andy Banachowski would call a timeout to regroup his team, and they would come out of the break with new vitality.

“(Volleyball) is such a game of momentum,” Banachowski said. “Those timeouts helped us calm ourselves and go back out onto the court with a bit more resolve. These girls are no strangers to challenge, and they rose to it very well tonight.”

The Utes earned their way into the second round by pulling off a comeback 3-2 win the previous night over Michigan State. Utah fell behind 2-1 against the Spartans but was able to pull it together when it mattered most, using a diverse offensive attack to win the last two games and fight off elimination.

Lovell led the Utes on the night with 20 kills, while sophomore Airial Salvo picked up 15 kills and 14 digs. Spartan outside-hitters had their way with the stalwart Utah defense for the majority of the night, with three of them netting more than 18 kills, but Emillie Toone and the rest of the Utes found a way to stop the three down the stretch and the U snagged the victory.

“I felt like games one and two were all about who made the least amount of unforced errors,” U head coach Beth Launiere said. “Game three we got shaky, but we came back in games four and five and really believed in ourselves and pulled out the win.”

Michigan State outside-hitter Katie Johnson kept the U defense on its heels throughout the match in picking up 21 kills, but couldn’t knock it down when it counted.

“When you’re up 2-1 and still not playing to your potential, it’s easy to think that you have it wrapped up,” Johnson said. “But Utah took back the momentum late in game three and we never really recovered from that.”

Despite the season-ending loss to the Bruins, Launiere said she is proud of the way her team played this season and is excited about returning her entire team next season.

“We didn’t come in here and lay down for them,” Launiere said. “We came in here and battled, and I’m proud of them for that. We don’t have any seniors in this group so we’re excited about that and look forward to matches like (UCLA) in the future.”

Tyler Cobb

Connie Dangerfield notches a dig as she dives with teammate Kate Robison for the ball in the Utes’ second-round NCAA Tournament loss against USC on Saturday, marking the end of the Utes’ record-breaking season.