Junior Lori Baird, an all-region honorable mention selection, finished in the top-20 nationally in blocks per game.
Dec. 17, 2007
The Utah volleyball team ran the gamut of emotions in 2007. After two starters transfered at the end of the spring season and another was lost for the year due to injury, few people knew what to expect going into the year. However, by the end of the season, the Utes came together to earn a 15-15 record, finishing second in the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
"By the end of the season we became a very good volleyball team," head coach Beth Launiere said. "It took a lot of hard work from where we started and a lot of determination from the players, coaches and everyone involved. We're going to end up with one of the top-five schedules in the country. To win 15 matches with that schedule, with the adversity that we had, I think that's extremely successful."
The Utes first nine matches featured seven teams that were ranked at some point during the season, including No. 4 USC, No. 5 UCLA and No. 6 Florida. Utah played competitively in all of these matches, dropping a number of games by just points and pushing almost every match to four or five games.
"We battled and played hard," Launiere said. "I think the tradition of the program really paid off for us early in the season because the players who were in those matches just believed we were supposed to be in those matches. Statistically, we had concerns early in the season and we knew that we needed to get better. Even though we were competing hard, we saw some signs that might get us in trouble and they did, and most of that was on offense. We hit over 60 percentage points higher in the second half than in the first half. That's a huge improvement. Every game we got better."
A 3-1 win over Colorado State on Sept. 21, which would move into the top-25 a few weeks later, was the first turning point for the Utes, as they went on to win five of their next six matches. However, Utah struggled with inconsistency in the middle of the season with streaks of both wins and losses. With a 3-0 win over Utah Valley on Oct. 23, the Utes began a surge towards the finish that culminated in them winning eight of their final 12 matches.
The final weekend of the regular season provided one of the biggest sparks of the year. After losing three close games to BYU the previous weekend, Utah defeated No. 25 UNLV in four games and swept San Diego State to finish tied for fourth in the MWC season standings with a 9-7 record.
The Utes entered the MWC Tournament as the fifth seed, drawing TCU, a team which had beaten Utah twice in the regular season, in the first game.
"We knew going into the tournament that there was a lot of parity, and we believed that anyone could win it," Launiere said. "We were playing well and figured it might as well be us. Our team believed. We didn't have anything to lose."
Sweeping TCU in the first round, the Utes reached the championship match with a thrilling 3-2 win over No. 20 Colorado State. The Rams went on to be seeded 14th in the NCAA Tournament the next week.
"The win over CSU was one of the biggest wins of the program," Launiere said. "We were the underdog and we stepped up and achieved something great under a lot of pressure. To pull that off in five games was amazing."
The dream came to an end the next day with a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to UNLV in the title match of the tournament.
"UNLV was on a mission just like we were, after they lost the regular season championship with two losses in the final weekend," Launiere said. "I think those missions came to a head at 11-11 in game five."
Through the course of the season, team success followed individual improvement. Although it took some time to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, every member of the team stepped up to play a role in the Utes late season success after those early struggles.
"If you gauged the season on player development, on and off the volleyball court, then it was an extremely successful year," Launiere said. "Everyone grew a lot, not just volleyball wise but also in terms of expectations, roles and leadership. There was significant improvement from every individual on this team. Every game we got better. I think it's going to bode well for us next year. A lot of the kids have gained experience that they might not have if certain things had not transpired. It's going to lead us into next season stronger."
Juniors Lori Baird and Kathryn Haynie stepped up as two of the offensive leaders of the team. Baird was an honorable mention all-region selection after finishing in the top-20 in the country with 1.53 blocks per game. Haynie led the Utes with 3.65 kills per game. Both were named to the MWC all-tournament team. Along with Emillie Toone, who was second in the country in blocking in 2006 before tearing her ACL over the summer, the three will be a powerful combination next year.
"A lot of the older players who hadn't been the ones who had to carry the offensive load in the past really learned how to take on that responsibility this year," Launiere said. "Lori and Kat learned how to be the go-to players. Last year they didn't have that responsibility and by the end of the season they took it up and handled it with incredible poise.
"I think Lori, Kat and Emillie are absolutely ready to lead this team. They understand the responsibility of that. They have great support players around them who gained a lot of experience this year."
Seniors Kate Robison, Connie Dangerfield, Whitney Webb and Hilary Taylor all closed out their careers at Utah. Robison averaged 2.76 kills per game and was second on the team with 2.91 digs per game. Dangerfield, who finished her career as Utah's all-time digs leader (1,571), averaged 4.17 digs per game and broke her own school record with 484 digs. Both were named to the MWC all-tournament team. Webb, who was a third-team All-American in 2006, surged at the end of the season to average 3.30 kills per game.
"I'm really proud of our seniors," Launiere said. "The way Kate finished her career was amazing. That was sheer determination by a senior with a lot of pride. For her and Connie to make the all-tournament team was great. They provided unbelievable leadership late in the season."
Three freshmen and a sophomore all earned places in the starting lineup during the year. Keisha Fisher, Stephanie Shardlow, Karolina Bartkowiak and Chelsey Sandberg all played key roles on the team late in the year. Fisher, who was recruited as a libero but started Utah's first game against ULCA at setter, led the team with 8.14 assists per game. Shardlow walked on to the team in June and would earn her first start of the year at setter against USC and averaged 6.61 assists per game. Bartkowiak switched from the middle to the right side, a position she had not played before, and would become a significant cog in the offense. She finished third on the team with 1.10 blocks per game. Sandberg began to make her mark on the team in the middle of September, finishing second on the squad with 1.18 blocks per game.
"Once we solidified the 6-2 rotation with Chelsey in the middle and Karolina on the right, we started seeing our numbers inching up," Launiere said. "Keisha and Karolina both switched positions for this team. Both demonstrated unselfishness and motivation through their play all year. Chelsey was given the opportunity to shine and did. She gained that experience every match. Keisha and Stephanie handled their unexpected situations unbelievably well."
After the disappointment of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years and finishing the season on a high note, Launiere is ready to get back on the court for next year.
"There's a high level of motivation," she said. "The coaches are in the office working and we're very excited for next year. We feel like this recruiting class is as good as we've had and it makes you hungry when you don't get in the tournament. I think this group's going to work very hard in the off-season."