Women's volleyball: Improved Utah moves into Huntsman Center
Utah women's volleyball coach Beth Launiere, entering her 24th season, knew her young team would take some knocks when the Utes transitioned to the Pac-12. And the past two seasons proved her right, as they finished ninth in the high-powered conference.
The Pac-12 preseason poll placed Utah once again at No. 9.
But as the Utes along with BYU, Utah State, Weber State, Southern Utah and Utah Valley prepare for Friday's season opener, two things stand out.
Launiere's freshmen and sophomores are now experienced juniors and seniors.
Additionally, the team now moves full time into the Huntsman Center. Utah was 189-64 inside cozy Crimson Court. In a dry run, the Utes played Stanford last season in the Huntsman Center, losing a tight four-game match.
"We're totally 100 percent ready for it," Launiere said as the Utes prepare for the two-day Utah Classic, which includes Utah State, Northern Iowa and Fairfield. "[The move] fits the level of our program and Pac-12 volleyball. It was actually difficult to play in Crimson Court and then play in [larger] arenas on the road."
Launiere believes Utah, which finished 14-19 in 2012 5-15 in Pac-12 competition will improve. Last year, her team lost five five-set matches. Experience, she says, can help the Utes win those matches and move into the Pac-12's top tier and a NCAA Tournament berth, the first since 2008.
Offseason competition is another reason to expect improvement. Senior outside hitter Morgan Odale and junior outside hitter Chelsey Schofield started for the USA A2 team during its tournament. Then there is junior right side Shelby Dalton, who had a breakout competition during the Pac-12's All-Star tour of China. She was the team's second-leading scorer.
To that list, add senior middle blocker Erin Redd-Brandon, one of six returning starters.
"There was huge difference in confidence when they came back from those [competitions]," Launiere said. "They came back with some swag."
BYU also enters 2013 with some swagger. The Cougars, who advanced to the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, return four starters from a team that finished last season 28-4 13-3 in the West Coast Conference and was ranked 12th nationally.
BYU opens against No. 25 Creighton on Friday at Bowling Green's Hampton Inn Invitational.
The Cougars do take one hit as 6-foot-8 opposite Jennifer Hansom decided to redshirt, concentrating on basketball. But BYU returns senior middle blocker Kathryn LeChemiant, who also played for USA Volleyball this summer.
"There is no doubt that our conference will be stronger than it was last year," BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. "But our preparation is the same as it always is."
Utah State made its last year in the WAC one for the ages. The Aggies return four starters who went 21-9 and captured the league's regular-season championship.
This season, USU enters the Mountain West and a whole new set of challenges.
"It's just an unknown going into this new conference," USU coach Grayson DuBose said. "We think we're going to be pretty good overall. We're returning a nice core group of kids."
This includes senior middle blocker Alyssa Everett, who didn't play last year due to a torn ACL. Junior middle blocker Kaitlyn VanHoff and sophomore opposite Elle Brainard were second team All-WAC selections in 2012.
Women's volleyball openers
All games Friday, time MT
• Utah State at Utah,7 p.m.
• BYU vs. Creighton at Bowling Green, 3:30 p.m.
• Grand Canyon at Weber State, 1 p.m.
• Arizona State at Utah Valley, 7 p.m.
• Southern Utah vs. Georgia Southern at Mobile, Ala., 3 p.m.