OREM, Utah - The Utah Valley University volleyball team claimed its first-ever Great West Conference Tournament championship, toppling Houston Baptist in straight sets (25-22, 25-21, 25-23) Saturday night at the PE Building.
Erica Nish, the lone senior on the UVU (18-8) squad, was named Tournament MVP after averaging 11 kills and two blocks per match over two games in the tournament. Nish led the Wolverines on Saturday night, posting 13 kills, eight digs and two block assists.
"I couldn't have been happier with our performance tonight," UVU head coach Sam Atoa said. "We stuck to the game plan and did what we needed to do both offensively and defensively. We discussed how we needed to be the stronger team and we played like that tonight."
Kalani Norris also finished in double-digit kills with 11 and Katie Fritzler and Lauren Stingham each posted five block assists. Brookelyn Hall, who was named to the All-Tournament team, put up 37 assists and McKenna Tait, also named to the All-Tournament team, finished with 22 digs.
Trailing 11-6 early in set one, UVU used a 6-1 run to level things at 12-12, getting a pair of kills from Norris along the way. The Wolverines kept on the upswing, taking their first lead of the set at 15-14 after Fritzler delivered a kill.
UVU never looked back from there, holding off HBU (20-11) for the remainder of the set on its way to a 25-22 win. The Huskies came within one point three times, but was turned away each time by a pair of kills from Morrell and one from Stringham.
Nish and Lindsay Morrell each smashed five kills to pace the Wolverines in the frame.
UVU picked up where it left off in the second set, jumping out to a 9-1 advantage. Nish, Hall, Morrell and Norris all delivered kills during the spurt while Stringham and Hall combined for a block.
The lead grew to as many as nine, but HBU would get no closer than three the rest of the way. The Wolverines consistently tempered any potential Husky rallies, never allowing more than three consecutive HBU points after establishing the big lead early.
Nish again paced UVU in set two, helping the Wolverines to a 25-21 victory with four kills. Fritzler and Norris each added three while Tait turned in a nice set with 12 digs from the libero spot.
"I'm very happy for Erica," Atoa said. "This time last year she was just a participant, cheering on the girls from the sideline because she blew out her knee. It's satisfying to see the comeback she's made and to see her get out there and have a great weekend. We needed that from her in order to be successful."
Facing a potential sweep, HBU grabbed a 10-6 lead early on, capitalizing on a few unforced UVU errors. Undeterred, the Wolverines repeated their set one performance, battling back to knot the score at 14-14.
Both teams traded points until Nish dropped in an ace to give UVU just a bit of breathing room at 18-16.
The Wolverines looked poised to close the match with ease, getting to 21-17 after a kill from Norris. But the Huskies put forth a last gasp effort, rallying with five of the next six points to grab a 23-22 advantage late.
But it was UVU who found the necessary points, stringing together three consecutive blocks to claim the championship. Fritzler had a hand in each, joining Norris to tie the score at 23-23, combining with Nish to get to championship-point, then linking with Norris for the title-deciding block.
HBU, co-champions of the GWC in the regular season alongside the UVU, had caused problems for UVU in the conference season. UVU needed five sets to get past the Huskies in Houston then fell to HBU in four on the return leg in Orem.
"We've had some really good teams in the past but it's taken us four years to finally claim this championship," added Atoa. "We knew this would be a challenge with a young team, but we believed in ourselves and we got it done."
The Wolverines, who are set to join the WAC in 2013, leave the GWC on top with a shared regular season title and its first tournament championship.
Though the conference tournament has culminated, the Wolverines still have one more regular season match on their schedule. UVU will be back in action Tuesday night as it makes the short trip up University Parkway to face the 13th-ranked Cougars of BYU. That match, which will air on BYUtv, tips off at 7 p.m. at BYU's Smith Fieldhouse and will conclude the 2012 season for the Wolverines.
2012 Great West Conference All-Tournament Team
McKenna Tait, Utah Valley
Camilla Tinari, NJIT
Victoria Weatherly, Houston Baptist
Erica Nish, Utah Valley
Diara Reynolds, Texas-Pan American
Heather Leaverton, Houston Baptist
Brookelyn Hall, Utah Valley
Kellen Hiser is sports information assistant at Utah Valley University. For more information on Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.