A 20-win season and the most wins ever in Western Athletic Conference play were just a few of the highlights of yet another successful season for Utah volleyball.
Since Beth Launiere became head coach at Utah in 1990, winning seasons and steady improvement have been the trademarks of the program. Despite playing with just one senior in the regular rotation and two freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup, the Utes finished 20-12 in 1996. It was the second 20-win season in Launiere's seven-year tenure and the fourth winning season in the past five years.
Utah also went 10-6 in the WAC, finishing above .500 for the first time, and tied for third in the Mountain Division of the expanded 16-team superconference. The Utes' previous best WAC record was 7-7, recorded each of the past three seasons. Utah also had its best overall conference record since going 8-4 in the HCAC in 1985.
"For the first time since I've been here, we won the matches we were supposed to win," said Launiere. "That's a sign of developing program that's beginning to mature."
Launiere, the winningest coach in the history of Utah volleyball, achieved a personal milestone last season with her 100th career victory in a 3-0 win over Utah State on Sept. 20.
Three Utes earned all-conference recognition last season. Brenda Barton-Whicker, a 6-0 outside hitter, was named first-team all-WAC Mountain Division. Sara Shakula, a 5-11 outside hitter, earned second-team honors. Brooke Barton, a 5-10 outside hitter was named the Mountain Division's second-team defensive specialist.
Barton-Whicker ranked sixth in the WAC in kills (4.25), fourth in aces (0.42) and fifth in digs (3.38) in 1996. She recorded a personal-best 476 kills, the fifth-most in a single season at Utah. Barton-Whicker also had career-best marks in attempts (1,200) and digs (378) to rank second and fourth, respectively, on the single-season charts.
One of the most decorated players in the history of the Utah program, Barton-Whicker recorded her 1,000th career kill against Rice on Oct. 19 and finished the season in second place all-time at the U. Barton-Whicker also moved into second place on the Utes' career ace chart, recording No. 108 against Weber State on Oct. 8.
Shakula was the Utes' second-biggest offensive weapon, averaging 3.31 kills per game and recording double-figures in kills in 19 times.
Middle blocker Maria Moen, who following the season returned to her native Norway after two outstanding years with the Utes, failed to earn postseason recognition despite ranking 10th in the league with 1.25 blocks per game and 17th in the WAC with a .248 hitting percentage.
"Brenda, Sara and Maria were the key players for us last year," revealed Launiere. "Just like our team as a whole, they were very consistent. Brenda is so steady, and once again she put up very solid numbers."
Freshman setter Graciela Torres started every match for the Utes last season. Torres ranked eighth in the WAC with 10.44 assists per game and eighth in aces (0.33). She set her way to 1,206 assists in '96, which is the fifth-best single-season total at Utah and also placed her fifth on the career chart.
The Utes opened the 1996 season by tying for the championship of their own Utah Classic, Aug. 30-31, where they recorded wins over Oregon and '95 NCAA Tournament qualifier Iowa State. Barton-Whicker and Shakula were named to the all-tournament team. Barton-Whicker set a school three-game match record with 22 kills against Boise State.
The following weekend, Utah rebounded from first-day losses to Pittsburgh and 12th-ranked UCLA to go 2-2 at the Powerade Judy Bellomo Classic in Santa Barbara, Calif. On the second day of the tournament, the Utes swept UC Irvine, and defeated eventual NCAA Tournament qualifier Central Florida in an epic five-game battle 15-13, 7-15, 10-15, 15-8, 15-12. Utah set a school record with a .463 hitting percentage against UCI.
Barton-Whicker was named the WAC Mountain Division Player of the Week on Sept. 9 after leading Utah in kills in all four matches at the UC Santa Barbara tournament. In 15 games, she hit .322 with 39 digs, seven blocks, six aces and one assist.
The Utes won the Utah State Invitational, Sept. 20-21, defeating Utah State, Northern Illinois and Santa Clara. The win over Santa Clara in the championship game was another five-game classic, with Utah winning 15-17, 19-17, 10-15, 15-6, 15-9. Jamie Young notched a triple-double against the Broncos with 14 kills, 18 assists and 18 digs. Barton-Whicker was voted the MVP of the tournament and freshman middle blocker Stacie Greenwalt made the all-tournament team. Barton-Whicker also set a Utah five-game match record with 68 attempts against Santa Clara.
"We won all four of our five-game matches last season," said Launiere. "That's another real telling point of a maturing team. I thought that the wins over Central Florida and Santa Clara early in the season were defining matches for us."
October 28 was a day of historic proportions for the program as Utah played the top-ranked team in the nation for the first time ever. Just under 1,000 fans were on hand at Crimson Court as Utah fell to No. 1 Hawai'i in three games. The Utes got another crack at knocking-off the top-ranked Rainbow Wahine on Nov. 1 in front of nearly 8,000 fans in Honolulu. Utah won the third game of the match 15-13, but fell to Hawai'i in four games.
As always, Utah's matches with in-state rival Brigham Young were two of the most entertaining of the season. After Utah won the first game 16-14, the Cougars came back at home to defeat the Utes in four games in Provo, Utah, on Oct. 4. Utah drew a season-best 1,236 fans--the third-largest crowd ever at Crimson Court--for the BYU match on Oct. 29. The Utes fell short in their comeback against the Cougars, losing 3-1 after trailing 2-0.
The Utes won a season-best six consecutive matches from Oct. 8-24, including three-game sweeps over Weber State and WAC opponents TCU, Rice and UTEP. Shakula played some of the best volleyball of her career during that stretch and was named the WAC Mountain Division Player of the Week on Oct. 21. In the two matches against Tulsa and Rice on Oct. 18 and 19, the Draper, Utah, native recorded 34 kills, 13 digs and hit .393. In the Utes' win over TCU on Oct. 11, Moen tied the school three-game match mark with 11 total blocks.
Should Utah advance to its first-ever NCAA Tournament this year, 1996 will be remembered as the season that provided the spring board that catapulted the Utes into the upper echelon of collegiate volleyball.