Lori Baird was an honorable mention all-region selection after finishing in the top-20 in the country with 1.53 blocks per game.
Aug. 18, 2008
For Utah head women's volleyball coach Beth Launiere, the 2008 season can't start soon enough. After beginning the 2007 campaign with a number of question marks, the Utes battled through adversity to finish second at the Mountain West Conference Tournament, upsetting a few top 25 teams along the way.
"I am as excited about this season as I've been about a team," Launiere said. "I feel like we have the right people on the bus and we have them in the right seats. Everyone in the program is working really hard and I feel like all the pieces of the puzzle are coming together."
Among the returning players are seniors Lori Baird and Kathryn Haynie. Baird was an honorable mention all-region selection after finishing in the top-20 in the country with 1.53 blocks per game. She spent time playing with the USA Women's National A2 Team over the summer. Haynie led the Utes with 3.65 kills per game. Along with senior Emillie Toone, who was second in the country in blocking in 2006 before tearing her ACL and taking a redshirt year in 2007, the three will be a powerful combination this year.
Haynie became a go-to player on the floor last season as the No. 1 outside hitter for the team, finishing in the top 10 in the conference in kills and led the team in the category.
"Kat had as good a spring as she's ever had," Launiere said. "She is a workhorse for us and has decreased her errors and become more consistent. The experience she gained last year as the No. 1 outside hitter has given her a lot of confidence going into her senior year."
"Cinthia is going to be a nice addition to this program," Launiere said. "She is quick, athletic, dynamic, and a good passer. We are really excited about her. I think she fits a need that we have in terms of ball control - she is also a good defensive player.
"It's hard to explain how valuable it is to get six months of training before your freshman year. Sarah needed to make some technical changes and she changed positions when she came to college. She has made a lot of progress and gained a lot of experience."
The Utes return both Stephanie Shardlow and Keisha Fisher, who shared time at the position by the end of last season. Although Fisher will move into the libero position, Shardlow ran the offense the entire spring. She averaged 6.61 assists per game last year.
"Stephanie was thrown into the fire last year and came out of it alive," Launiere said. "Physically and mentally, she is a whole different player than she was a year ago."
Simmons will also have a chance to battle for the starting spot. She was a 2007 PrepVolleyball.com High School All-American and was a finalist for the website's Andi Collins Award, which is given to the top setter in the country.
"Abby is one of the top setters out of Arizona," Launiere said. "She is a nice, quick athlete who has good size and good hands. There is always a learning curve with freshman setters, so the faster she can get in and learn our system, the better it will be for us. We are excited about her.
"It's nice going into this season with two setters. We'll let them compete on the court in the preseason. The position is much more settled than it was a year ago."
The Utes have the most depth, by far, at the middle blocker position. In addition to Toone and Baird, sophomore Karolina Bartkowiak and junior Chelsey Sandberg each played key roles on the team last year.
"By the end of the spring, Emillie was at 95 percent, and she will be 100 percent by August," Launiere said. "You can't put a value on how much she brings to the team and to the court. She learned a lot being off the court last year and really grew as a person and mentally through that experience. Emillie is a good, positive energy player and it's good to have that back on the court - not to mention her blocking and hitting.
"Like Kat, the experience Lori gained as one of our go-to players has turned her into a completely different player than she was a year ago. She's playing with so much confidence. Playing on the right side this spring, we were able to get her significantly more sets, so that's a move we're going to consider. Lori's whole game has developed and we're going to find a way to utilize everything that she can do."
Bartkowiak spent time playing in both the middle and right side positions last year and became a significant cog in the offense. She finished third on the team with 1.10 blocks per game and had 1.98 kills per game. Sandberg finished second on the squad with 1.18 blocks per game.
"Karolina runs the slide so well off one foot that we want to utilize that strength," Launiere said. "She can be a big offensive player for us because of that. Karolina made progress in her conditioning which is going to make a big difference for her in her sophomore season.
"Chelsey was our most improved player for the second year in a row. She has made herself into a really good Division I player. Between Lori, Karolina and Chelsea, all three of them are training in the middle and on the right side and it's going to be competitive."
Danielle Killpack, who redshirted last season, and newcomer Miranda Bradshaw will also be in the mix to earn a position on the court. "The redshirt year was very valuable for Dani," Launiere said. "She worked really hard and has improved her game a lot. We are excited about Miranda's size and athleticism and think that she's going to be a valuable plaer in this program."
Opposite/Right Side Hitter
In addition to Baird, Bartkowiak and Sandberg, who have experience and talent both in the middle and on the right side, redshirt freshman Jennifer Lanting will also look to make an impact for the Utes.
"Jen used the redshirt year to really improve every aspect of her skills and conditioning," Launiere said. "She puts up a big block for us. As she improves the rest of her game, her ability to contribute is going to increase."
One of the biggest losses to the Ute squad is career digs record-holder Connie Dangerfield. However, sophomore Keisha Fisher, who started most of 2007 at setter, was originally recruited as Dangerfield's replacement and moved into the libero position full-time during the spring. Fisher averaged 8.41 assists per game and 2.41 digs per game last season.
"We knew when we recruited Keisha that she could play in just about every position and that's what she's been doing for us," Launiere said. "She spent the spring learning the defensive system so that she can take more responsibility there. Playing setter helped prepare her to play libero because she had a big responsibility at setter and did a tremendous job. She's going to be a very good libero for us and we are excited about her in that position."
Junior Stephanie Hodgman played in 51 games and came away with 47 digs on the year. Freshman Corinne Crump, a two-time first-team all-region selection out of Alta High School, will also contribute on defense.
"Stephanie is a much improved player from when she first got here in terms of skills and conditioning," Launiere said. "She has improved the whole aspect of her game and has become a leader on our team. We have watched Corinne for a long time and she is a nice defensive player. She plays in a club that runs the same system, so she comes in fairly prepared as a freshman."
The 2008 schedule features four teams that ended the season ranked in the top-25 of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) poll, with eight teams that reached the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
Utah hosts two tournaments in the early part of the season, beginning with the Ute Invitational, Aug 29-31. The Utes will play Utah Valley on Friday, Aug 29, facing Santa Clara on Sunday, Aug. 31. Santa Clara reached the NCAA Tournament last year. The Utes head to New Mexico State for the NMSU Tournament, Sept. 5-6, and included on the slate is NCAA power Texas. The Longhorns finished the year ranked sixth in the final AVCA poll. NMSU was also nationally ranked, while the team will also square off against Florida Gulf Coast and Houston.
The team returns home to Crimson Court to host the Utah Classic, Sept. 12-13, which sees Purdue, St. Louis and Utah State travel to Salt Lake City. Purdue made the NCAA Tournament, while St. Louis is one of the top teams in the Atlantic 10. Utah upset the No. 17 Boilermakers last season.
"We have three very good teams at the Utah Classic, and Santa Clara the first weekend will also be an important game for us," Launiere said. "At New Mexico State we have the opportunity to play Texas, which probably has the most size of any team in the country. They are a legitimate final four team next year, and it will be exciting to play them. New Mexico State is a solid program. It will be a good match-up between a good MWC team and a good WAC team."
The Mountain West Conference slate starts on Sept. 18 at Colorado State. The Rams and Utes had several classic battles last year, including a 3-2 Utah upset of No. 20 and top-seeded CSU in the second round of the MWC Tournament last year.
Other tough teams on the schedule include BYU, which finished the season ranked 12th in the AVCA poll, along with reigning MWC Tournament champion UNLV.
"Our conference finished fourth in the country in RPI last season," Launiere said. "That's big time. Although CSU, BYU and Utah have always had a stronghold on the conference, UNLV broke into that last year and New Mexico and TCU are both knocking on the door. That strength is good for everyone in the conference."
With the elimination of the MWC Tournament, the Utes will use the final weekend of November to travel to the University of the Pacific for the Bankers Classic. Utah will face Nevada in the first game on Nov. 28, with a second game on Nov. 29.
"The Bankers Classic is one of the longest-running, most prestigious collegiate tournaments there is," Launiere said. "They have had some really good teams over the years. It will be a nice way to end the season and prepare for NCAA's."