Beth Launiere and the Utes have high expectations for 2003.
Aug. 13, 2003
SALT LAKE CITY - Following a 2002 season that saw Utah reach the NCAA Tournament for the fifth-straight year, win its second-consecutive Mountain West Conference Tournament championship and reach the 20-win plateau for the seventh-successive season, Head Coach Beth Launiere and the 2003 Utes are ready for remarkable things this year.
"I'm as excited for this season as any in a while, mostly because the team committed themselves to this season last January," Launiere says. "I upped my expectations during the off-season and the team met everything. I pushed them as hard in the off-season as any team I've ever had, and I believe they are as ready as can be."
Among the other highlights for the '02 Utes were beating Brigham Young three times in one season (including a three-game sweep in the MWC Tournament championship) for the first time in school history, and defeating Pacific and Arizona, both of which were ranked in the top 15 nationally.
"Looking back, it was an extremely successful season considering how much we had lost (four seniors and one junior) from the 2001 Sweet 16 team," Launiere notes.
Unfortunately, Utah fell short of two major goals last season - winning the regular-season MWC title and repeating the NCAA Tournament success it had enjoyed during the 2001 season. The Utes placed third in the Mountain West and were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Texas A&M.
"We had so many new players, it took a while to get everyone on the same page," Launiere says. "We had times during the season that I felt the individuals on the team needed to learn the work ethic mentality this program is all about. It was a struggle at times, but mostly we figured things out and were able to win a conference championship."
"The returning players toiled all winter and spring and now realize that the harder you work, the harder it is to surrender," Launiere continues. "We are ready for this year."
Utah has been picked to finish first in the MWC Preseason Coaches Poll for the second year in a row.
"Last year we had to learn as a program how to deal with being the frontrunner," Launiere notes. "What we learned is that you keep the same blue collar work ethic regardless of your preseason pick or ranking. Our goal is to work to get better continuously throughout the season."
Leading the Utes this season will be preseason MWC Player of the Year Kim Turner, a three-time all-conference selection and the reigning co-MWC Player of the Year. The senior needs just five block assists and 435 kills to move into first place all-time in both categories at Utah. Turner should get the first record when the Utes open the season at the Arizona State Tournament. Ironically, Turner will be playing in that tournament against four former high school and club teammates from Arizona State.
Adding to the attack is junior Lyndsey Henderson, who averaged 2.28 kills and 1.27 blocks per game in her first season as a Ute last year.
"We have the best middle blocker in the conference in Kim and possibly the best tandem with Kim and Lyndsey," Launiere claims.
Launiere also believes that junior setter Kelsie Kartchner, already a two-year starter, is ready to handle the role of on-court leadership. Kartchner was also a preseason all-conference selection by the MWC coaches.
Meanwhile, senior libero Jackie Morrill, who was named the top libero in last year's MWC Tournament, has a year under her belt at that position.
"Kelsie has established herself as a premier setter, while Jackie is one of the top liberos," Launiere says. "We have four very established, experienced players that have been in the battles many, many times."
Utah also returns four other letterwinners from last year's squad. "While we might not have a lot of depth, we have quality at each position," Launiere notes. "The road to winning a championship might look different than in years past, but that's okay."
Strzinková, a two-time all-MWC pick, ranked second on the team in both kills (3.78 per game) and digs (2.52 per game). "Sylva was the glue for us last year and got us out of trouble a lot," Launiere says.
Beal, a four-year letterwinner, averaged 1.20 blocks and 1.39 kills per game last year. "Brenda's work ethic and stability were such a key," notes Launiere. "That said, as one person steps out, another steps up, so I'm not concerned."
Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2003 Utes.
The Utes ranked seventh in the nation in blocks per game last season, while Turner ranked fifth individually. Turner and Henderson, the team's top two blockers, both return.
"Kim and Lyndsey complement each other very well," Launiere says. "Kim hits in front of the setter, while Lyndsey hits behind. We really have some diversity in what we can do."
The Utes have also added Liana Bortoto, a two-time junior college All-American who transferred from Utah Valley State College. She will see time at both middle and left side.
"Liana brings a lot of experience and is a proven player," Launiere says. "As evidenced by her hitting percentage at UVSC, she's an extremely consistent offensive threat."
"The outside hitting position is our least experienced position, but I wouldn't consider it a weakness by any stretch," Launiere says. "Shelly has been in the program for two years and is ready to be a significant contributor. I think she'll get better and better as the season goes on.
"Danielle has played volleyball her entire life and knows the game well," Launiere adds. "She's one of the best passers on our team."
Redshirt freshman Amie Toone, who spent last season learning the Utah system and incoming freshman Carlee Kulovitz will both play a mixture of middle and right side. "The opposites won't be asked to have a huge offensive load because we have lots of weapons," Launiere said. "Instead, they will be asked to block, mix it up and keep some balance in the offense."
Toone (and Leichliter) gained valuable international experience by playing in the Utah-Moscow games in July. "Amie had a great spring, played internationally this summer, and is ready to go," Launiere claims.
Last year as a senior at Durango (Colo.) High School, Kulovitz was named the "Best of the Best" middle blocker in Colorado by the Rocky Mountain News. An all-state selection, she was a first-team all-conference pick and was named her team's MVP. "Carlee is a big block, there's no question about it," Launiere says. "It's a question of learning our system and adjusting to Division I volleyball."
The setter is one of Utah's most experienced positions. "This is a real strength position for us because of our depth and experience," Launiere said.
Expected to start is Kartchner, who ranks fifth all-time in assists at the U., after just two seasons. Not only has Kartchner started for the last two years, but she gained additional experience during the summer as one of four setters to play with the A2 team and when she competed with the USA Select Team that played against European national teams.
"Kelsie plays the most volleyball of anyone on our team," Launiere said. "She was a young setter in this program for the last two years and is now ready to be a leader."
Also valuable to the team is junior Tracy Neumeier, who has played on and off throughout her career. "There's no question that Tracy can step in and run this team if needed," Launiere said. "They both really push each other and both of them have benefitted from that."
Launiere has also added Katie Theurer, a transfer from Salt Lake Community College. "Katie is a hard worker that will add positively to team dynamics," she says.
The veteran Morrill will once again guide the Ute defense. "Jackie has played significantly her entire career here," notes Launiere. "There's no other libero I'd rather have on my team."
"Taryn is ready for her senior year," Launiere said. "She has trained and practiced a great deal and we will definitely use her in a serving capacity."
The Utes will once again play tough competition in 2003, facing two teams ranked in the USA Today/AVCA Preseason Coaches Poll and six others that received votes, as did the Utes. Additionally, eight of Utah's '03 opponents participated in the 2002 NCAA Tournament, including MWC foe Colorado State. The two preseason Top 25 teams - Washington State (No. 19) and Missouri (No. 21) - will visit Crimson Court in the Utes' home-opening tournament.
"Every year we play a nationally-competitive schedule to prepare for the MWC and NCAA Tournaments, and it's no different this year," Launiere says. "That's a philosophy of this program. We've been ranked nationally for several years now, and our goal is to continue to be year in and year out."