UVU volleyball: Wolverine women's volleyball sets out for the NCAA Tournament
OREM — After winning conference titles in the Great West Conference in each of the past two seasons, head women's volleyball coach Sam Atoa has a new goal in store for his Utah Valley Wolverines in 2013 — qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
Coach Atoa's Wolverines will begin their inaugural season of play in the Western Athletic Conference this year, and the new conference will give UVU an opportunity to earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament — something unavailable in the Great West Conference — for the first time in program history at the Division I level.
"We're very excited to be in the WAC. It is great for us to be in such a reputable conference with a rich history," said Atoa, who enters his 15th season at the helm of UVU volleyball. "It also provides us a full schedule, with nine teams in the conference. We're looking forward to all of those conference matches, home and away, each year in the future.
"The highlight of being in the WAC is having the opportunity to qualify for an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. It is something that we strive for and work hard for. It's something that makes us very excited for the possibilities and chances that lie ahead."
This season Atoa, a two-time GWC Coach of the Year, welcomes back eight letterwinniners and five starters from last year's squad that went 18-9 and won the conference regular season and tournament championships. He will mix in six newcomers to the fold this year as well.
"We've got a lot of young kids this year with a few of our girls from last year leaving on missions, but we have been able to find some very quality individuals to help replace them," Atoa said. "We feel like all of these newcomers have great qualities and athletic ability. Some of them will be very, very good for us and will have the opportunity to put themselves in a spot to compete for us right away."
Three of the eight returning letterwinners were all-conference performers last season. Senior setter Brookelyn Hall and sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stringham were named first team all-conference in 2012, while junior outside hitter Kalani Norris was named to the second team. Former standout middle blocker Erica Nish, another all-conference Wolverine from a year ago, is also back, but this time on the sideline as student assistant coach in 2013.
"The experience of these returners will be quite valuable for us," Atoa said. "I expect big things from Brookelyn at setter, Lauren in the middle, McKenna (Tait) at libero and Kalani at outside hitter. Their successes will help us this season and I am for sure relying on what they've done and what they're going to be able do, which includes helping to lead this young program."
Utah Valley's success in the Great West didn't go unnoticed by the WAC's head coaches as the Wolverines were recently tabbed to finish third in their first season of play in the new league. The Wolverines were projected to finish just behind last season's WAC Tournament champion New Mexico State and runner-up Idaho.
"What the coaches have decided is great, however, what matters more to me is where we finish at the end of the year," Atoa said. "There have been a lot of changes in the WAC and some of the programs really don't know how to judge each other because we haven't had the opportunity to see one another in the past. No matter where we end up, we have set some important goals for our program this year and we are shooting for a very successful season."
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