Despite record, Volleyball season a major accomplishment

When the U volleyball team began preparing for the 2007 season in April, the Utes were dealt a devastating blow. When the season came to an end last weekend, it was the Utes who were delivering the big hits.

Everything in between developed into what head coach Beth Launiere called one of the hardest seasons in her 18 years at Utah. In the end, it was also one of the most rewarding.

“I think this season was as tough as any season ever,” Launiere said. “We were going through something much bigger than just volleyball. It was hard, but the things that (the team) gained from this year, they mean much more than a championship ever could. I really believe that.”

The season started off sour when All-American outside hitter Airial Salvo left the team for undisclosed reasons and transferred to Washington. Setter Sydney Anderson, who was named the 2006 MWC Freshman of the Year, simultaneously jumped ship to play with the U.S. National team before eventually transferring to Nebraska.

That was just the beginning.

Before the season even started, middle blocker Emillie Toone — who led the nation in blocks per game in 2006 — suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and was forced to redshirt this season.

Mix in numerous family deaths, including the loss of Launiere’s brother, and the hard times quickly extended beyond the volleyball court.

Further complicating matters were the four new faces that would have to make major contributions for the first time, with freshman setters Stephanie Shardlow and Keisha Fisher being the most notable. The opening part of the Utes’ schedule didn’t make things any easier, either. Five of Utah’s opening seven matches were against teams ranked in the top-20 at one time this year. Four of those teams still are.

The Utes never stopped fighting, even though there were more low times to follow.

One of the lowest times, according to All-MWC team member Lori Baird, was a 2-0 lead the Utes blew at home to TCU on Oct. 6. Nearly a month later, the Utes dropped a lackluster loss on the road to Utah State.

A week after the loss to the Aggies, all the hard work the Utes had put into the season began to pay off.

Part of the credit goes to the Ute coaching staff.

“I’ve never seen a coaching staff work so hard to make us better,” senior libero Connie Dangerfield said. “(The coaches) really break down film of other teams just so we maybe could have that one little thing that gives us an advantage or just so we have that something extra.”

Most of the credit goes to the players.

“I’ve never seen a team come in and work as hard as we did every single day,” Dangerfield said.

A week before the MWC tournament, everything started falling into place for the Utes.

Utah played one of its most complete matches of the season against a UNLV team that was ranked in the top-25 at the time. The Utes rolled over the Rebels 3-1. The next night, the Utes ran San Diego State out of Crimson Court with a 3-0 sweep. Utah carried the momentum of the final week of the season into the conference tournament.

Although the Utes wore a No. 5 seed, nobody could tell they weren’t the No. 1 seed. In fact, after the Utes beat a TCU team that they hadn’t beat on their first two tries, they beat the No. 1 seed and 20th-ranked Colorado State in five games to reach the conference championship game for the seventh straight time despite their seed.

In the end, Utah came three points shy of a conference championship and an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament. In the locker room, the pressure of the season and the sense of accomplishment the Utes felt could not be contained.

“I can’t speak for my players, but for me, it was 10 months of a lot of pressure, a lot of putting our nose down and trying to get this thing to where we got it to,” Launiere said. “It was kind of a release of all that. So, it was pretty emotional, because we did put so much into it. For me, it was 10 months or a year of just a lot of hard work, and we came up just a few points short. But, I felt better coming out of the locker room this year than I did last year.”

The NCAA tournament starts tonight, and although the Utes will not be participating, Launiere has already got a good feeling about next year.

“I’m already expecting to be back on top next year,” Launiere said with a laugh. “I’m very motivated. My wheels are already turning, no doubt about it.”

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Lennie Mahler