SALT LAKE CITY — Junior outside hitter Rachel Orr's 15 kills and senior outside hitter Tumua Etimani's career-high 11 kills sparked Utah State volleyball's rally Friday night at Utah's Jon M. Huntsman Center in USU's season opener. However, the rally came up short as the Aggies fell to the Utes in five sets (25-19, 21-25, 25-18, 21-25, 15-8) in the first day of action of the Utah Classic.
Friday was the second year in a row that the matchup with Utah has gone five sets. It was the third five-set battle between the two teams in the last five meets, but the Aggies have been on the short end all three times. The Utes' two wins in the series have come after USU's win in 2010 in the Aggies' last visit to Utah. Friday night was the Utes' first match played in the Huntsman Center after previously playing in Crimson Court.
The loss Friday night also spoiled Utah State's first match as a Mountain West Conference team as the Aggies are in their first year in the MW after eight seasons in the Western Athletic Conference.
"It was a heck of a match tonight," USU head coach Grayson DuBose said. "They're (Utah) playing in a new place for them and they were fired up and excited. I thought we matched that emotion most of the match. It just comes down to little ball-control issues here at the end. When you're playing a good time like them, that's usually what it comes down to. We're going to learn and get better."
Orr (Thatcher, Ariz.) tallied 15 kills, while Etimani (Richardson, Texas) nearly tripled her previous career-best of four kills. Sophomore Elle Brainard (Saratoga Springs, Utah) logged 10 kills in her first match as an opposite side hitter. Last season Brainard switched to middle blocker, where she was named the WAC Freshman of the Year, as well as being named to the league's second-team all-WAC list and the conference's all-freshman team.
"I thought Elle dug herself a little hole right in the beginning, but she dug out of that funk, and I thought the same thing with Rachel Orr," DuBose said. "They both got better as the match went on. That was really nice to see."
Senior middle blocker Alyssa Everett (Perry, Utah) posted eight block assists in her first action since 2011 after missing last season with an injury. Everett's eight blocks led USU, and junior middle blocker Kaitlyn VanHoff (Draper, Utah) added six block assists. Brainard and junior setter Paige Neves (Otto, Wyo.) logged four apiece, pacing USU to 14 total team blocks.
Neves dished out 42 assists and posted a double-double with 11 digs. Orr and Etimani joined her with double-doubles, posting 16 and 14 digs, respectively. Junior libero Ashlan Rogers-Court posted a team-high 22 digs and served up two service aces.
Utah was led by Shelby Dalton's 19 kills, while Morgan Odale added 12 and Erin Redd-Brandon posted 11 kills to go with a match-best 12 block assists. Kalee Kirby recorded 35 assists while Odale registered a match-high 23 digs.
Down 13-4 in set one, the Aggies reeled off three-straight points, with Everett and Neves teaming up for a block. Utah later stretched its lead and had set point at 24-15, but the Aggies fought back, taking advantage of a Utah service error. Orr and Everett had a block and Orr pounded consecutive kills to cut the gap to 24-19, forcing the Utes to take a timeout. Out of the break, Utah's Makenzie Moea'i lofted a tip over the USU block for a kill and clinched the set at 25-19.
Just like the opening frame, the Utes jumped out to a big lead, opening up an 11-1 advantage, before the Aggies scored eight-straight points to cut the lead to 11-9. VanHoff started the spurt with a kill then went back behind the service line and served, which spearheaded the comeback. Orr capped the streak with consecutive kills sandwiched around a Utah timeout. USU's rally continued, and the Aggies later took their first lead of the match at 18-17 after an Orr kill. With the score tied at 20-20, Utah State scored the next three points, the last on a tandem block by Everett and Neves. The duo later teamed up again for the Aggies 25th point of the set, winning the frame at 25-21 and going to the break at one set apiece.
The Aggies continued to show their fight in the third set, but Utah slowly pulled away. However, USU kept Utah close, trailing 14-10, then getting a kill by Brainard, an ace by Rogers-Court and a Utah error to cut the score to 14-13. That would be the closest the Aggies would get, as the Utes pulled away for a 25-18 set win.
In the fourth set, Utah State and Utah went back-and-forth, with the Aggies bouncing back from a 10-7 deficit and turning it into a 12-11 lead after a Rogers-Court ace. Orr and Everett joined forces for a block for a 21-17 USU advantage. The Utes trimmed away at the Aggie advantage and cut it to 22-21 after a kill by Chelsey Schofield, but back-to-back Brainard kills and a Utah error gave USU the 25-21 set four win to force the fifth and deciding set.
A block by VanHoff and Etimani followed by a VanHoff kill gave the Aggies a 5-3 lead in the final frame. The Utes bounced back with eight unanswered for an 11-3 lead. At match point at 14-6, USU fought back with a block by Orr and VanHoff, then a kill by Orr pulled the Aggie within 14-8. But a kill by Moea'i sealed the set and the match win for the Utes.
USU has a quick turnaround, as the Aggies return to the court Saturday at 10 a.m. (MT), playing the Panthers of Northern Iowa before wrapping up action by locking horns with the Stags of Fairfield at 5 p.m. Fans can follow Saturday's action with "GameTracker" links on USU's athletic website or through match updates on Twitter.
Following this weekend's action, the Aggies play at the University of Portland Nike Invitational on Sept. 6-7, before playing at in-state foe Weber State on Sept. 10. USU then plays at the Duke University Tournament on Sept. 13-14.
The Aggies officially kick off their home schedule by hosting Boise State on Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. in USU's MW debut.
Utah State volleyball tickets are available by contacting the USU Ticket Office at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum or by calling 1-888-USTATE-1 or (435) 797-0305.
Doug Hoffman is the assistant athletic director for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.