Volleyball looking forward to first conference game

By By Bubba Brown

By Bubba Brown

After a rough couple of weeks, the Ute volleyball team is ready to begin conference play.

The Utah team enters conference play on a three-game losing streak and has lost five of its past seven games, including a loss to No. 12 Oregon that snapped a 13-match, yearlong home winning streak.

Utah now has the luxury of welcoming a team it has never lost to on Crimson Court when Air Force Academy comes to Salt Lake City for tonight’s match.

Head coach Beth Launiere said the Utes, who have won 14 straight conference matches dating back to last season, are ready to begin the conference portion of their schedule.

“We’re very determined to get some wins,” Launiere said. “I think the team’s ready to move forward and get into conference play.”

Air Force has won two straight games and is 8-4 on the year, which is the best 12-match stretch the Falcons have had since 2003.

The Falcons enter the match with three players averaging more than two kills per set. Junior outside hitter Caroline Kurtz, has paced the Falcons while collecting 3.16 kills per set. Last week’s Mountain West Conference Co-Player of the Week, junior middle blocker Nicole Stilwell, has 2.77 kills per set, and senior middle hitter Michelle Harrington has 2.27 per set. Stilwell, named Player of the Week, is the first Falcon to receive the honor since 2003.

Defensively, Air Force has three players averaging more than half a block per set. Statistically, Harrington leads with .95 blocks per set. She is followed by Stilwell with .67 blocks per set, and junior setter Jessica Hellmann with .56 blocks per set.

Air Force was tabbed to finish last in the MWC in the Preseason Coaches Poll, after going 0-16 in last season’s conference play.

The Utes will enter conference play after tuning up against Oregon, which Launiere believes to be one of the best teams Utah has faced this season.

“They are a good team,” Launiere said. “That was as good of a defense as we’ve seen.”
With a victory, Utah can move Launiere one step closer to 400 wins for her career. She is currently at 397, and could potentially reach 400 against rival BYU8212;if the Utes beat Air Force and San Diego State this week.

The Utes have not lost three consecutive matches since last year, when they lost to then-No. 15 Purdue and conference rival Colorado State and were upset by Wyoming in September of last season. Following the losing streak, the Utes won 19 of their past 21 and their remaining 14 conference games on their way to a Mountain West Conference title and a Sweet-16 appearance last season.

Launiere insists she hardly remembers last year’s team, but junior opposite hitter Karolina Bartkowiak believes the team can replicate last season’s conference success.
“We can do anything this year,” Bartkowiak said. “We’ve just got to keep playing as a team. We’ve got to focus on us.”

Launiere’s focus, however, is not on duplicating what last year’s team did, but rather on improving match-to-match.

“I am happy as long as we are getting better,” she said.
Utah will continue league play Saturday when it faces San Diego State at Crimson Court at 1 p.m.

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Richard Payson

Chelsey Sandberg and the Utes look to shake off a 3 game losing streak tonight against Air Force at 7 on Crimson Court.