Volleyball looks to replicate last season’s success

By Bubba Brown, Staff Writer

Riding on the strength of three All-Mountain West Conference seniors, the 2008 Utah women’s volleyball team earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, but now that Lori Baird, Kathryn Haynie and Emillie Toone have concluded their Utah careers, the Utes will be forced to turn to different players to continue their winning ways.

Head coach Beth Launiere understands the difficulty of losing three star players.

“It’s never easy to replace that much,” she said. “They brought talent, experience, leadership and started as captains for two years. But I believe that players step up. It’s the other players’ opportunity.”

One leading candidate to step up is junior Karolina Bartkowiak, who was an All-Mountain West Conference selection last season. The Poland native was a strong contributor to last year’s success and finished the season as No. 4 on the team in kills, behind Baird, Haynie and Toone.

Other players expected to have an impact are returning starters Cinthia Silva, Keisha Fisher, Chelsey Sandberg and Stephanie Shardlow. Silva collected 207 kills and 234 digs for the Utes last season while Fisher paced the team with 393 digs. Sandberg notched 123 kills and Shardlow led the Utes with 798 assists.

Incoming recruit Brooke McAlister was expected to play a vital role this season, but knee surgery will leave her sidelined.

“Losing Brooke is a big blow,” Launiere said. “She was one of the top players in the state and now she’s out for the season. With her out, we don’t have outside depth.”
McKenzie Odale and Natalie Nichols are other freshmen who will be counted on to contribute.

“McKenzie is just a very good all-around volleyball player,” Launiere said. “Natalie will be a nice addition to our team. She has a great desire and passion to play at this level.”

Also new to the team this year is assistant coach Brian Doyon, who compiled a record of 113-38 in six years as head coach of Battle Mountain High School in Vail, Colo.

Doyon will prove to be a valuable addition to the coaching staff and will assist Launiere with player development as well as strategy.

Last season, the team employed the 6-2 formation, but Launiere is undecided on which formation will be used this year.

“We never make that decision this early,” she said. “Instead, we wait until the preseason to go with one or the other, although we’ve worked both formations in the spring. It’s one of many decisions we have to make, in addition to a lot of personnel decisions. We just throw everything into the hat.”

Replacing departed seniors won’t be the only challenge for the Utes and their coaching staff this season. The 2009 schedule could prove to be one of the most difficult in recent years for the program.

The Utes will play six matches against 2008 NCAA Tournament teams including Cincinnati, Santa Clara, Oregon, Long Beach State and two matches with Colorado State. Utah begins the season by hosting the annual Utah Classic, a four-team event that will include Arizona State, UC-Riverside and Cincinnati. The Utes will play two more tournaments, the Utah Valley Tournament and Santa Clara Tournament, before returning home to face Oregon and then begin their conference schedule.

Utah will play rival BYU in Salt Lake City on Sept. 25, and will travel to Provo to face the Cougars on Oct. 23, and conclude the regular season on the road at Long Beach State.
Whether the 2009 Utes prove to be as successful as the 2008 team remains to be seen, but Launiere is focused on maximizing this team’s talent.

“You just can’t know (if the team can replicate last year’s success),” she said. “You just have to work and train to get better and see what happens. That said, our goal is always to win the Mountain West Conference. We want to get to the NCAA Tournament like last year. This year, we’re just starting from a different position. Every year is a whole different scenario. We’ve got a lot of work to do. Every player on this team is in a new role. We have a lot of question marks, but an equal amount of opportunity.”

Although last season’s successes have been replaced by this year’s questions, Launiere remembers lessons learned from 2008.

“You have to approach every year by forming the group of girls into a team and get them to be the best,” she said. “You have to make sure every player understands what it takes.”

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