Setting the record straight

By By Bubba Brown, Staff Writer

By Bubba Brown, Staff Writer

One is a married, former walk-on from California. The other is an outdoorsy-type Arizonian who couldn’t wait to be a Ute. Together, as the Utah volleyball team’s setters, they supply the Utes’ hitters with all the assists they need.

Junior Stephanie Neeley and sophomore Abby Simmons have combined for 976 assists on the year for an average of more than 10 per set, which accounts for more than 90 percent of Utah’s assists.

Setters provide a crucial component of a team’s success by giving the team’s offensive weapons well-placed balls to hit into the opposition’s court, something at which head coach Beth Launiere said Neeley and Simmons have excelled.

“They’ve done a good job,” she said. “They are a year more experienced. It’s good to have that experience because it’s allowed us to do some higher level setting things.”

The paths they took to become Utah’s setters, however, are drastically different.
Neeley, who played many sports growing up, began playing volleyball in ninth grade and “kind of just dropped all the other sports.” Despite a highly successful career at Saugus High School in Saugus, Calif., that included setting a season assists record of 759 during her senior year and two all-league honors, Neeley was not offered many scholarships.

While looking for a setter to back up the Mountain West’s 2006 Freshman of the Year, Sydney Anderson, Launiere saw Neeley play in Las Vegas and was intrigued about the possibility of inviting her on the squad as a walk-on. Neeley agreed to walk on as a Ute, and as luck would have it, found herself playing in 27 matches and 85 sets as a freshman after Anderson left the team.

“I was just excited to be on the team,” Neeley said. “I knew I wouldn’t play much, but when Sydney left, I had to be ready to play.”

Neeley averaged 6.61 assists per set during her freshman campaign, en route to tallying 562 assists on the year, in addition to 161 digs.

The following season, Neeley took the next step, leading the team and ranking seventh in the conference with 7.53 assists per set, including a career-high 52 assist performance in a win over New Mexico State.

This season, Neeley, who got married in the summer, has collected 463 assists, for an average of 5.09 per set in 24 matches, while dealing with the difficulties of being a married student-athlete.

“It is definitely difficult during the season,” she said. “You’re traveling, keeping up with class and have a husband at home who needs to see you. It all comes down to managing priorities.”

Simmons also played several sports when she was young, and like Neeley, gravitated to volleyball.

“Growing up, I played every sport in the book,” she said. “I started playing volleyball in sixth grade and then I just played that from then on.”

However, unlike Neeley, Simmons parlayed an outstanding high school career at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, which resulted in being named East Valley Tribune Arizona 5A Player of the Year her senior year, into a scholarship offer from the Utes. It was an offer she was eager to accept.

“I tease her a lot because she was one of the easiest recruits I’ve ever had,” Launiere said. “I offered her a scholarship and she accepted right on the same phone call.”

Simmons defends her quick decision by pointing out the benefits of being a Ute.

“I really liked the atmosphere here,” she said. “It’s also somewhat close to home, which is nice.”

Last year, as a freshman, Simmons quickly became the second member of Utah’s setter duo. She played in 30 matches and led the team in assists nine times. She dished out a then career-high 31 assists against Florida Gulf Coast on her way to accumulating 473 assists, an average of 5.09, on the year.

In 24 matches this season, the sophomore has collected 513 assists for an average of 5.64 per set.

Despite their similarities when it comes to volleyball, they are quite different away from Crimson Court.

Neeley said her favorite thing to do is relax with her husband, Jonathan.

“My husband is my number one interest off the court,” she said. “Other than that, I do pretty normal stuff like hang out and watch movies.”

Simmons, on the other hand, enjoys all things outdoors.

“I like everything active8212;hiking, swimming and being outside,” she said.

They both said they have appreciated their time at Utah.

For Neeley, the highlight has been the lessons learned.

“I came to Utah for volleyball,” she said. “I loved the team and coaches and it’s been something I’ve enjoyed. It’s been an experience that you can’t find anywhere else, being able to manage time and priorities, as well as everything else you learn being on the team.”

For Simmons, the best part has been the experience of living on her own, though it did take some adjusting.

“It’s really been a lot of fun,” she said. “I love being a college athlete and living on my own. I’ve always traveled, so I was used to being away from home, although my first year it did take a while to get used to being away from my family for so long.”

Despite sharing the same position and battling for playing time, they both say they have pushed each other to become better.

“People might think it’s a rivalry, but we’re actually good friends,” Simmons said. “If she needs advice or something like that, we’re completely open to that. She helped me a ton last year.”

Neeley agrees, saying that it’s best for the team.

“We do compete against each other, but we also push each other,” she said. “We are both contributing to the team. Her getting better makes me better, and that makes the team better, so I don’t look at it like a rivalry. I look at it as both of us getting better. ”

[email protected]