A three-game victory last Saturday over Eastern Washington got the University of Utah's volleyball team back in the flow after back-to-back losses to Colorado State and Hawaii.
"After those tough losses, we played like we played most of the season," said Ute coach Beth Launiere, whose 24-6 team enters the 64-team NCAA Tournament for the seventh straight year tonight at 6:30 MST at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion against three-time national champion Long Beach State (23-6), a team that beat the Utes 3-1 on Sept. 4 in its Pyramid.
"It helps to have that confidence back," Launiere said, adding about the tournament, "I feel good about it."
Launiere's next victory will be the 300th of her 15-year career at Utah.
The winner of tonight's first match will meet the winner of the second either UCLA or Loyola Marymount, who play at 8 tonight on Saturday for the right to advance to the Seattle regional.
Though the UCLA sub-regional contains four fairly evenly matched clubs, Launiere has some confidence. "I can't think of anything better than to go through Long Beach and UCLA to get to the Sweet 16," she said. Utah has gotten to the Sweet 16 once, in 2001, and made the second round last year. It is 6-6 in NCAA play.
Utah's loss at Long Beach was closer than it appeared Long Beach won the first game by two points and the fourth by three points and Launiere said Utah was a bit overwhelmed by all the championship banners. The 49ers have been in 18 straight NCAAs and nine final fours and have a 44-15 postseason record since 1985, though it's 0-2 the last two years.
Although the Niners' game films didn't arrive in Salt Lake City until Wednesday, just hours before the Utes left for Los Angeles, Launiere said she had determined earlier in the week that Utah's main weapon would be serving, and the Utes practiced that this week.
"They're athletic, so we need to get them out of system," Launiere reasons. "We worked a lot on serving. (That) will especially be key."
The Utes also have to work around Long Beach's tremendous true freshman middle blocker Alexis Crimes, the freshman of the year and an all-Big West Conference first-teamer who is quite athletic, said Launiere. Even though Utah has its own strong middle blocker, senior Lyndsey Henderson, "We're not going to run our offense into (Crimes)," Launiere said. "We will not run the one-set."
Long Beach also has an all-BWC setter in senior Jillian Mazzarella, who'll try to keep the Niners in system as Utah tries different sets from seniors Kelsie Kartchner and Tracy Neumeier to disrupt Long Beach plays.
Another key for Utah could be its defense, and sophomore libero Connie Dangerfield "has really come on," Launiere said of her defensive specialist who just set the Mountain West Conference single-season dig record (458) Saturday.
Kartchner and Dangerfield have been ill this week, as has Launiere, but there are no injuries to deal with.Long Beach may bring 1,500 rooters to Pauley, but the site affords a lot of Utes' friends and families the chance to be there, too. Neumeier is from nearby and should have a large group of fans. And Utah recruits heavily in the area.
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