Utes playing sharp in conference games

By By Bubba Brown

By Bubba Brown

Conference success

The Utes started conference play last week with consecutive wins against Air Force and San Diego State. The wins give them 16 straight victories against conference opponents dating back to last September. The last conference foe to deal Utah a defeat was Wyoming, in the second conference game of last season. The Utes have a chance to extend that streak to 17 when BYU invades Crimson Court on Friday at 7 p.m., for the first Deseret First Duel of the season.

Sophomore outside hitter Sarah Hibbert says conference play is when the Utes should be their sharpest.

“I thought the team learned a lot from the little bit of a rough preseason we had,” she said. “We have a fresh start with conference and we realize that this is when we need to play our best.”

Upperclassmen stepping up

One key for the Utes as they picked up two wins last week was the play of seniors Chelsey Sandberg and Cinthia Silva and junior Karolina Bartkowiak.

“I think we’re really starting to feel (Sandberg, Silva and Bartkowiak) stepping up,” said head coach Beth Launiere.

Against Air Force, Sandberg hit a career-high of 12 kills to lead the Utes’ offensive attack. Silva had an all-around performance, as she collected 10 digs, seven kills and four blocks. Bartkowiak didn’t play the third set because of an injury, but she still managed seven kills and six digs.

Later in the week against San Diego State, the trio stepped up again. This time, Bartkowiak led the way, finishing just short of a double-double with 12 kills, eight digs and six blocks. Sandberg had seven kills to go along with four blocks, and Silva had 13 digs and five kills.

Executing the fundamentals

So far this season, the Utes are perfect at beating their opponents at the fundamentals. Each time the Utes have outhit an opponent, it has resulted in one of the team’s eight victories, including outhitting Air Force .235 to .125 and San Diego State .233 to .140 last week. They also have established a perfect record when outblocking the other team.

Home cookin’

The Utes have enjoyed the comforts of home early in the 2009 season. So far, Utah is 6-1 at Crimson Court, with the only loss coming at the hands of No. 12 Oregon. This is a trend continuing from last season, when the Utes finished the season with nine consecutive wins at home.

Hibbert said playing well at home is something the team focuses on.

“We have pride in our home court,” she said. “We talk in the locker room about defending Crimson Court. Our fans are on top of the other team.”

Rivalry game

The team will renew an old rivalry when BYU comes to Crimson Court on Friday. Last season, Utah defeated BYU both times they played, sweeping the Cougars on the road, and earning a five-set win at Crimson Court. Launiere enters the contest with a chance to make history, as she is one win shy of 400 career victories at Utah. The match will count towards the Deseret First Duel, which is a head-to-head competition between Utah and BYU encompassing 12 sports. The match will also kick off the team’s 35th anniversary reunion. Former Ute players will be honored throughout the match and will be participating in an alumni game this weekend.

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Thien Sok

After a difficult preseason, the Utes are faring well in conference play, defeating both Air Force and San Diego State last week. The team will welcome BYU to Crimson Court on Friday evening.