Senior Whitney Webb earned third-team All-America distinction last season.
Aug. 21, 2007
After a record-setting 2006 campaign that saw the Utah volleyball team go 16-0 in the Mountain West Conference (MWC), reach the second round of the NCAA Championship and set a school record with a 25-match winning streak, head coach Beth Launiere looks forward to the challenges of the 2007 season. The Utes return third-team American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) All-American senior hitter Whitney Webb, All-MWC middle blocker junior Lori Baird and 2004 MWC Libero of the Year Connie Dangerfield, who returns for her fifth season.
"It's going to be an exciting year," Launiere said. "We've got a strong schedule, we're going to be challenged, and it's going to be a season where we're going to be tested. Our players are going to have the opportunity to show what they're made of. We're looking forward to it."
Although the team returns a core group of starters and letterwinners, AVCA second-team All-American outside hitter Airial Salvo has transferred, while MWC Freshman of the Year, setter Sydney Anderson, is training with the national team. In addition, middle blocker Emillie Toone, who ranked second in the country in blocks last season, will be redshirting the year after suffering a knee injury during the summer.
"We definitely have some questions to get answered during the preseason," Launiere said. "The setting position will be decided when we're in the gym and on the court. I feel like we have very good experienced players in the key positions and it's a strong team."
In addition to Webb, Baird and Dangerfield, other key players returning include junior outside hitter Kathryn (Lovell) Haynie, senior hitter Kate Robison and sophomore middle blocker Chelsey Sandberg.
Launiere has also brought in a strong contingent of newcomers, including the 2006 Gatorade Idaho Volleyball Player of the Year, libero/setter Keisha Fisher, middle blocker Karolina Bartkowiak and outside hitter Jennifer Lanting.
"With so many newcomers, it's going to be a group that we have to form into a team," Launiere said. "A lot of preseason's going to be about that. Yes, it's about the physical training, but it's also about getting to know each other and establishing roles. We've got a lot of pieces, and that makes it an exciting challenge to form this team."
After helping Utah lead the nation in blocks as a sophomore, Baird is the leading returning middle blocker for the Utes. She ranked in the top five in the MWC with 1.34 blocks per game, was third on the team with a .333 hitting percentage and totaled 2.44 kills per game last year. Baird was named to the MWC All-Tournament team after leading Utah with a .549 hitting percentage in the tournament.
"Lori is ready to break out and carry more of the offensive load this season," Launiere said. "She was one of the top five blockers in the conference last year. Lori is much stronger this year and I look forward for her to take an increased offensive and blocking role." Sandberg served in a backup role last year, playing in 20 games and recording 20 blocks and 16 kills.
"Chelsey really made a lot of progress this spring," Launiere said. "In Europe, we didn't miss a beat when she was in the game. She's a dynamic, quick athlete who has a good head on her shoulders and is a confident player. Chelsey has proved she's ready to play at this level."
Newcomers Danielle Killpack and Bartkowiak will also be looking to earn time on the floor. Killpack led Idaho Falls to the 5A state championship in 2004 and 2005, while Bartkowiak was a two-time all-conference and all-area selection at West Aurora.
"We are excited about both Danielle and Karolina in the middle," Launiere said. "Karolina is a good athlete who brings a strong personality and tremendous attitude to the team. She is a strong, physical player. Danielle has good size and has played in the region high performance program for a few years, so she understands our system."
Haynie, who started 23 matches for the Utes, came on strong at the end of last season, recording a season-high 20 kills in the NCAA Tournament against Michigan State and recording four straight double-digit kill matches to end the year. She averaged 3.02 kills per game.
"I am excited for Kat to have more of a key role on this team," Launiere said. "The end of last season and during the spring she proved she is ready for that responsibility. She's got one of the most dynamic arm swings in the country. Kat played with so much confidence at the end of last season, I'm sure she will bring that into this season and will be a real leader for us."
Robison, an experienced reserve who averaged 1.91 digs and 0.97 kills per game last year in a utility role, will be looked to as a steady force on the floor.
"Kate has been a wonderful utility and role player for us and I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have this type of player on any team," Launiere said. "Last year she played mostly in the back row, but she is ready to play all the way around. She plays with a lot of composure. With her being a senior, we'll look for her to provide a lot of leadership and be ready to go in a number of positions."
Sophomore Hilary Taylor and freshman Leilani Ili will also be in the mix. "Hilary worked hard in the off-season to get strong and brings a lot to the team on and off the court," Launiere said. "Leilani comes into the program as a solid all-around player. She has good passing skills, which is so critical for success."
All-American Webb, a solid player who averaged 3.13 kills, 2.67 digs and 1.29 blocks per game along with a .344 hitting percentage, returns as one of the top right sides in the country.
"Whitney really had a breakout season last year in terms of numbers and her role on the team," Launiere said. "We always match her up with their best hitter. She takes that role very seriously and gives us a huge blocking presence on that side. Offensively, Whitney is a very dynamic hitter whose role will increase even more this year. She is one of the most competitive players we have on the team. The stronger the competition, the more Whitney rises to the challenge."
Lanting, a 6-6 freshman who led Central Valley Christian to the CIF Div. 5 regular season title in 2006, brings good size and athleticism to the team. "Jen has a lot of potential," Launiere said. "The sooner we can get her into our system, the sooner she can start contributing."
Dangerfield, who averaged 4.21 digs per game at libero last year, is fully back from a redshirt season in 2005 and will be looked to as one of the leaders on the floor for the Utes.
"Connie started out last season having not played for a year, and it takes some time to get back into the competitive mode," Launiere said. "She had a great spring. More than anything, she is ready to lead this team and have a great fifth year."
Hodgman, who played in 23 games last year, played some key defensive minutes on the floor.
"For a freshman, Stephanie played some minutes in pressure situations and did very well with it," Launiere said. "She worked hard in the off-season and has proved that she can play. Stephanie also has a very good serve."
Fisher is one of the most exciting newcomers to Launiere's team. A four-time all-state selection who led Skyline to the 5A state final, she has a variety of skills that could see her playing either defensive specialist or setter.
"We are excited about Kiesha as a volleyball player," Launiere said. "She can play the game. She is competitive and aggressive, and can pass, set, serve and hit. We know she will help this team somewhere."
The setting position raises the most questions as the season begins, with Anderson and 2005 starter Shannon Krug both gone. Two players in the mix include freshmen Stephanie Shardlow and Fisher. Shardlow was a two-time all-league player at Saugus High School.
"Stephanie plays in a good club and has some good experience," Launiere said. "She has good size for a setter and is a competitive person who will be in the mix for the setting position.
Launiere has put together the most competitive schedule the Utah program has ever had. The team will face eight teams that made the 2006 NCAA Tournament (UCLA, either Nebraska or Tennessee, Purdue, USC, Florida, Colorado State, New Mexico State and Brigham Young). Four of those teams finished in the top-10 of the final AVCA coaches poll (Nebraska, UCLA, USC and Florida).
"You've got to play the best to be the best," Launiere said. "We're not afraid of this schedule, and we're not backing down from it. The preseason schedule is going to prepare us very well for the Mountain West Conference. We're going to learn about ourselves early on, and that's the bottom line. We're excited about the challenge of it."
For the first time in its history, Utah was invited to participate in the 2007 AVCA College Volleyball Showcase, hosted by defending NCAA champion Nebraska, Aug. 24-25. The Utes begin the year against UCLA, then face either Tennessee or Nebraska.
"We're honored to be invited," Launiere said. "It's a showcase for the top teams in the country and it's an opportunity for us to showcase the strength of our program. We're excited to be there."
Utah also participates in the Purdue Motor Board Tournament in Lafayette, Ind., Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, facing North Carolina, Dayton and host Purdue. The Utes then return home to host USC (Sept. 7) and Florida (Sept. 9).
"I'll take my chances against anyone in the country on Crimson Court," Launiere said. "We like having those teams at our place and we're excited for the fans to have both matches here. It's a great opportunity to see two high-level volleyball matches in Utah."
The MWC schedule begins on Sept. 13 at San Diego State. Highlighted conference games include Colorado State (Sept. 21 and Oct. 20) and BYU (Oct. 12 and Nov. 9).
"The Mountain West is one of the top six volleyball conferences in the country," Launiere said. "Last year the teams in the conference did really well in out of conference games, which really strengthened all our programs. It's exciting to have that level of competition night in and night out. There are a lot of programs that have made a lot of progress and it's going to be very competitive this year."