Volleyball to open season with Utah Classic

By Bubba Brown, Staff Writer

For several weeks, the No. 17 Utah women’s volleyball team has been participating in two-a-day practices and intrasquad matches. The Utes, who have been clamoring for game action, will begin the 2009 season by hosting the Utah Classic, starting Friday.

“We”ve started to increase the intensity,” said head coach Beth Launiere. “You can only get so excited during two-a-days.”

The reigning Mountain West Conference champions will open their season against Arizona State on Friday at 7 p.m. Arizona State, which compiled a 13-18 record last year, returns three starters, including senior setter Marina Mercer, junior libero Sarah Johnson and junior outside hitter Sarah Reaves. In the preseason Pac-10 Coaches Poll, the Sun Devils were tabbed to finish No. 8, ahead of Oregon State and Washington State. The Sun Devils finished 3-9 on the road last year, but they lead the all-time series with the Utes, 9-2.

The following day at 10 a.m., the Utes will square off against UC-Riverside. The Highlanders went 8-23 a year ago, including a 3-13 record in the Big West Conference. Entering their first season under head coach Ron Larsen, the Highlanders were ticketed to finish No. 9 in the Big West preseason Coaches Poll. Last season, they finished 2-11 in road games. This will be the first match between the Utes and the Highlanders.

The Utes will wrap up the Utah Classic against defending Big East champion Cincinnati on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Bearcats are returning four starters: junior outside hitter Stephanie Niemer, junior setter Annie Fesl, sophomore outside hitter Missy Harpenau and junior middle blocker Lindsay Upton. They’re also returning senior libero Jaime Frey. Utah has never faced Cincinnati, but right now it is 5-6 all-time against Big East schools.

The Utes will focus on sharpening their skills and working out kinks during the two-day event.

“We’ve got to figure out the passing situation,” Launiere said. “Karolina Bartkowiak will play all around. It will get people used to their new roles, as well as getting three matches in against three tough opponents.”

The tournament also offers Launiere three chances to inch closer to a milestone. The head coach enters her 20th season with a record of 391-212, just nine wins shy of 400 for her Utah career.

Fans will notice a new look to Utah’s home when they file into Crimson Court during the Utah Classic. “Crimson Court” and “Home of Utah Volleyball” now adorn the east wall, while the team’s 10 NCAA Tournament banners cover the west wall, replacing the banners of Utah’s Mountain West Conference foes.

“When people walk in now, it lets them know that this is our home,” Launiere said. “This is Crimson Court. It’s a strong statement.”

Last season, Utah went 2-1 in the Utah Classic, only losing to the then-No. 15 Purdue Boilermakers. The loss marked the only time the Utes were defeated at Crimson Court in 2008.

This year, the Utes want to hoist the Utah Classic title.

“It’s our tournament,” Bartkowiak said. “It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. We have home-court advantage, and we want to win it.”

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