Head coach Beth Launiere and her 2004 women's volleyball squad enter the season as the No. 24-ranked team.
Aug. 13, 2004
With the loss of All-American Kim Turner and all-conference libero Jackie Morrill, many wonder what lies ahead for the Utes in 2004. But Head Coach Beth Launiere, entering her 15th season, doesn't have any doubts.
"We worked all spring without them and have addressed who's going to be the go-to players in crunch time," she says. "Do you replace Kim, Jackie and Taryn? No, they were key players, but I believe in this year's players and the idea that they will step up.
"People don't understand the makeup of our team," Launiere continues. "It's going to be an exciting year. We have three tried and tested seniors, and we also have Shelly Sommerfeldt, who is a junior eligibility-wise, but is in her fourth year. Add to that senior Liana Bortoto, who was a junior college All-American, and senior Katrena Ellett, a three-year starter who returns from an LDS mission, and we're much deeper, more experienced and better than people realize."
Last year, Utah went 22-9, advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and was ranked No. 23 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) final poll. Additionally, Turner was the Utes' first-ever All-American, making the AVCA third team.
Leading the Utes this season will be senior setters Kelsie Kartchner and Tracy Neumeier. Kartchner is a three-year starter, while Neumeier gained valuable experience last season when the Utes ran a 6-2.
Adding to the attack is senior middle blocker Lyndsey Henderson and the aforementioned Sommerfeldt. Henderson is a two-year starter after transferring from Purdue, and Sommerfeldt is Utah's lone all-conference returner.
Utah also returns five other letterwinners from last year's squad.
Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2004 Utes.
The Utes could run a 6-2 offense again this season as well as a 5-1 with Kartchner at times. With two senior setters, Launiere believes they are the key to Utah reaching its lofty goals this season. "I feel great about this position," she says. "You can't measure the value of experience. They are working very well together and know that they're a tandem when we're in the 6-2."
Launiere believes that Neumeier, who started for the majority of the season last year, brings something to the court that no one else on the team does. "Tracy had a great junior year and I fully expect her to bring those intangibles to the court every day," Launiere says.
Junior Katie Theurer, who redshirted last season after transferring from Salt Lake Community College, also returns. "Katie is a very quick, tremendous athlete, who is mentally tough," Launiere explains. "She spent the last year in the gym becoming a better setter, and I have confidence in her if she were needed. She makes us better each day in the gym."
Karlie Porter is a new transfer from SLCC and will redshirt this season. "Karlie will gain a lot of training this season," Launiere explains. "She improved a lot at SLCC, and with a year of training with us, she could be really good. She will definitely give us depth in the future."
Utah has a great deal of depth at the outside hitter position. "Our outside hitters are a real strength for us," Launiere claims. "I like having a team where this position is a strong point, because the outside hitters get so many swings, so having it as a strength means you know your team will be solid. It gives you lots of options."
Also key is junior Danielle Leichliter, who gained a tremendous amount of experience last season when she played in nearly every match. "Danielle's experience is so valuable for us," Launiere says. "Our depth this season will help us a lot, and Danielle helps us in that aspect a lot. She plays her role very well -- she passes, plays defense and can be counted on for her share of kills in a match."
Another key contributor will be Liana Bortoto, a transfer who had to sit out last season due to some unforeseen issues. "Liana is a big, powerful hitter on the left side that has the ability to get lots of kills," Launiere explains. "She is a very experienced hitter with a lot of different sets, and her versatility makes her tough to defend. After practicing with us for a year, she is ready to get on the court and compete."
Also returning is sophomore Natalie Miller, who saw limited action last year. "Natalie had a really good spring," Launiere notes. "She also played on the IVA High Performance Team that competed in Argentina over the summer. She's making choices that are giving her a chance to contribute this season."
New to the mix this year is freshman Kate Robison, a three-time first-team all-state pick at Clearfield High School. "I expect Kate to compete right away," Launiere says. "She's a competitor with a high level of experience for her age."
Sophomore Amie Toone was moved to the middle in the offseason and trained there all spring. "Amie's strengths are her blocking and her quickness," Launiere says. "She is a quick middle that can close blocks, which is something we can definitely use."
Also returning in the middle is sophomore Carlee Kulovitz, who brings a big, physical presence to the net. "Carlee gained so much in the offense in terms of experience," Launiere explains. "She is a really hard worker who can be very offensive for us."
Rounding out the group is freshman Whitney Webb, who will likely play both middle blocker and opposite. "Whitney is a big, physical player that gives us depth," Launiere says.
Also expected to be in the mix is 6-7 freshman Emillie Toone, who made the junior national A2 team. "Everyone talks about her size, but there's so much more to her -- she is a very good athlete," Launiere explains. "She can shut down outside hitters and lots of teams will have match-up problems with her."
Hitter Kelsie Kartchner could also step in and see time playing the opposite position. "Kelsie hit for us last year because the needed more offensive punch," said Launiere. "She proved she can attack and will be one our key hitters when she is in the front row."
Launiere believes that outside the setter, the libero is possibly the most important position on the court because she is in control of the defense and passing positions. It is one of the few positions that stays on the court full-time and the ideal libero has to be mentally tough because she is in control of so much on the court.
New to the team is freshman Lacey Lavarias, who Launiere says has great ball control and defensive mentality. "Lacey is a quick defensive player," Launiere says. "I'm happy to have another player from the islands."
Like always, the 2004 Utah schedule is extremely competitive. The Utes will face nine teams that participated in last year's NCAA Tournament. Utah, which is 58-10 at home over the past five seasons, will play home matches against 2003 NCAA Tournament participants UCLA, Saint Mary's, Notre Dame, Brigham Young, Colorado State and Hawaii, as well as Eastern Washington, a team that posted a 22-8 record last year.
UCLA is is ranked No. 3 in the preseason while Notre Dame (No. 25), Colorado State (11) and Hawaii (13) are also ranked in the preseason poll.
In addition, the Utes face perennial powerhouses in Long Beach State and UC Irvine on the road.
"Our schedule this season is not for the faint of heart," Launiere notes. "It is one of the most demanding we've ever had and it will allow us to reach our goals if we succeed.
"I've always had the philosophy that you have to play the best to be the best," Launiere continues. "A lot of our tough matches are at home, where we've been very successful in the past."