Libero Connie Dangerfiled returns after sitting out the 2005 season due to injury.
Aug. 11, 2006
The 2006 University of Utah volleyball team may not have a senior on its squad but it certainly doesn't lack the experience or tools it needs to accomplish its goals.
The Utes return five starters from the 2005 team that won the Mountain West Conference tournament title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament second round.
"Without seniors on this team, it's important that we have strong leadership from our underclass players on and off the court," 16-year veteran head coach Beth Launiere said. "That was something we focused on during the offseason and I believe that our leadership developed nicely last spring."
In addition to leadership, fundamentals were also a focal point for the Utes as they enter the 2006 campaign.
Blocking was one of the team's strengths in 2005 as Utah's 3.61 blocks per game were the third-best average in the nation. And, Launiere contends that it will still be the foundation of another solid defensive team.
But, the entire game isn't defense and the Utes enter 2006 after getting back to basics and working on the fundamentals of the game.
"I was very happy to see that our team's skills got a lot better in the offseason," said Launiere. "We weren't able to work on many individual things in the fall so that was something we focused on and improved upon in the spring.
"We had to get better at passing, serving and sideout offense in the spring," said Launiere.
While those areas improved, it was the off-the-court efforts that Launiere saw the biggest strides.
"Our physical strength was our biggest improvement," Launiere said. "Playing a tough non-conference schedule, in addition to conference play, we have to be a strong team that can endure the entire season." Valuable experience and a solid foundation are what the Utes will have in 2006. And, with that on their side, the team will set out to accomplish its goals.
"Our team is one cohesive unit," Launiere remarked. "All of us enter the season on the same page and are ready to accomplish our mission of winning the Mountain West and going further in the NCAA Tournament than we ever have before."
On the heels of MWC and West Region Freshman of the Year honors, she will be a predominant figure in 2006.
"Airial's role increased as the season went on last year," said Launiere. "She will have a bigger role this year and I know she's ready for it."
Junior Whitney Webb had a breakout sophomore campaign in 2005, earning a starting role around the time conference season rolled around. She quickly became a key player for Utah, adding a competitive fire into the lineup.
One of the best right-side blockers in the conference, Webb chalked up 2.16 kills last year, hitting .261 and nearly averaging one block per game.
Kate Robison will return to outside hitter after spending a portion of the 2005 season at libero and defensive specialist.
Robison was third on the team with 2.29 digs last year but refocused on playing outside this past spring. She showed some of the biggest improvements on the team during the offseason and will vie for time on the court this fall.
Kathryn Lovell gained a lot experience as a freshman last year. One of the top options off the bench in 2005, Lovell was able to gain big-match experience in her rookie year.
A dynamic attacker with a live arm, Lovell worked on passing and defense in the offseason and has become a better all-around player.
Hilary Taylor joins the Utes after two seasons at Western Wyoming CC. Taylor is a talented outside that brings a lot of potential to the lineup.
In addition to the five outsides on the roster, sophomore middle blocker Lori Baird also trained at outside hitter last spring.
A 6-7 junior, Toone stands as one of top blockers in the country. Last year, she jammed offenses to the tune of 1.64 blocks per game, the eighth-best average in the country. She also adds offense to the lineup, as she averaged 1.99 kills per game and hit a team-best .310.
"Emillie allows us to have an intimidating presence in the middle," said Launiere. "She possesses the ability to shut down opposing hitters and make them change what they are doing."
Meanwhile, Baird added another 1.34 blocks per game in 2005 but she also tallied 2.54 kills on .287 hitting.
"Lori is one of the most offensive middles we've had in this program," said Launiere. "Her ability to hit different sets and at different places on the net makes her difficult for blockers to track."
Baird also trained at outside hitter during the offseason. Practicing on the outside allowed her more swings and improved her passing, making her a better all-around player. It also means she could hit some sets at the antenna this season.
In addition to Toone and Baird, Chelsey Sandberg will also add depth at middle blocker. An exciting and dynamic athlete, she is relatively young to the game of volleyball but brings quickness and athleticism to the middle.
"Every good program needs two solid setters." Launiere noted. "Anytime you have great competition in the practice gym, it will bring out the best in everyone."
Krug stepped in as a freshman last year and took over as the No. 1 setter. As a result, she set an attack that hit .237 in chalking up 11.76 assists per game.
Her ability to assimilate to the college game led to a lot of the successes in 2005 and her experience in running the offense is an added benefit to a young 2006 squad.
Anderson comes to Utah after being ranked one of the top high school and junior setters in the country.
The 6-0 setter has played internationally with her IVA/High Performance team and was a four-time all-state player at Alta High School (Utah).
Defensive Specialist/Libero -
Experience is the name of the game for Utah in the back row.
"We're excited to have Connie back," Launiere said. "It took a while for her to get back into game form. But, she played all spring and is 100 percent ready to go."
Dangerfield sat out the 2005 season due to injury. She finished the 2004 campaign as the league's top libero, guiding Utah from the back with 4.17 digs per game. She tallied 467 digs that season which stands as Utah's single-season record.
Dangerfield has stepped up as a team leader in the spring and adds stability to the team's defense.
Lavarias will prove a capable backup to Dangerfield. She appeared in 13 matches last year and made tremendous improvements during the offseason. The 5-8 sophomore gained strength and improved her defense and passing.
Freshman Stephanie Hodgman is a solid passer with good ball control and will add depth to the back row.
The Utes play a hefty schedule that includes three teams that finished 2005 in the top 25 and another seven teams that made it to the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
"We play a strong schedule as usual," said Launiere. "We play some prominent teams on the road which helps us prepare for league and tournament play.
"But, we also have some strong teams coming to Crimson Court too. Missouri State, Temple and Utah State are strong programs in each of their regions and will provide good home competition for us."
The season begins Aug. 25 at the Aquafina Invitational in Gainesville, Fla. Utah will play Arkansas State (Aug, 25) and Florida (Aug. 26). Florida finished 2005 the No. 3-ranked team in the nation.
Other top non-conference opponents include North Carolina (in Los Angeles on Sept. 1), USC (in Los Angeles on Sept. 2), Utah State (in Salt Lake City on Sept. 8) and Missouri State (in Salt Lake City on Sept. 9).
The home schedule begins on Sept. 8 with the four-team, six-match Utah Classic. Conference play launches soon after with the Utes hosting Colorado State and Air Force on Sept. 15 and 16, respectively.
"I believe the Mountain West Conference is going to be very competitive this year," said Launiere. "I think we'll be competing with BYU and CSU for the championship as well as UNLV.
"Everyone in our conference continues to improve and that's what makes the Mountain West a stronger and deeper conference than ever before, in my opinion."
Other home conference matches of note are UNLV (Oct. 22) and in-state rival BYU (Oct. 27).
The MWC Tournament is from Nov. 23-25 and will be held at Las Vegas. The NCAA Tournament starts on Nov. 30.