The Utah Valley University women's volleyball team opens Western Athletic Conference play on the road this week when it heads to Edinburg, Texas, to take on UT Rio Grande Valley on Thursday and Las Cruces, New Mexico, to face defending league champion New Mexico State on Saturday.
The Wolverines and Vaqueros' WAC opener will take place on Thursday at 6 p.m. MT, and air live on the WAC Digital Network, while Saturday's matinee at NM State will begin at 1 p.m. MT, and feature live audio and live stats.
"We played a pretty challenging schedule in the preseason and we believe that it will help us as we enter conference play. If we can compete against teams like Hawaii and Washington on the road in hostile territory, then we should be able to learn from those experiences and compete against our conference opponents," head UVU coach Sam Atoa said. "The season starts over this week, and the team that wants it the most is going to get out ahead. This weekend is crucial for us, as it will help set the tone for us for the conference season."
UVU will enter the conference-opening weekend with a 4-9 overall record after dropping a trio of matches at home last week. The Wolverines first fell to in-state rival Utah State on Sept. 13, in four sets (3-1), before closing the week with a 3-1 setback to UNLV and a five-set defeat to CSUN (3-2). In Saturday's UVU/BYU Challenge finale against CSUN, Utah Valley managed to overcome a 2-0 deficit as it sent the match to a decisive fifth set. In the fifth and final game, UVU held a late 13-10 advantage and a pair of match-point leads, but in the end the Matadors managed to answer back each time as they went on to win the final set, 17-15, and the match.
Junior middle blocker Madison Dennison recorded the first two double-doubles of her career last week after putting up 12 kills and 10 blocks against USU and 12 kills and a career-high 12 blocks versus CSUN. With her match-high 12-block outing against the Matadors, Dennison helped UVU record its second-most single-match team block tally in program history with 20.0 total team blocks in the contest.
Behind Dennison's big week, senior libero Nakisha Willden too played well for the Wolverines as she earned all-tournament team honors after averaging 5.22 digs per set and 1.00 assists on the weekend. Willden recorded 26 digs against the Rebels and 21 more versus the Matadors to earn her second all-tournament team recognition of the season.
Where Dennison and UVU rank nationally
Dennison leads the Wolverines on the season with a .228 attack percentage and a 1.50 blocks per set average. Her blocking average is good enough to lead the WAC and rank her 16th nationally, and she also ranks seventh in the country in total blocks with 72. As a team, the Wolverines also lead the WAC in blocks and rank 12th in the nation with a 2.98 team per set blocking average.
UVU in WAC openers
Thursday's WAC opener will mark UVU's fourth season of Western Athletic Conference play. The Wolverines enter the contest with a perfect 3-0 mark in WAC openers, including a 2-0 record on the road. The 2016 Wolverines were picked to finish fifth in the WAC this season after tying for third a year ago with a 9-5 league record.
About the opposition
UT Rio Grande Valley enters Thursday's conference opener in second place in the WAC standings with a 9-5 overall record. UTRGV holds wins over Big 12 foe Baylor, as well as Prairie View A&M (twice), Abilene Christian (twice), Tulane, Bethune-Cookman, Stephen F. Austin and Florida Atlantic. The Vaqueros were picked to finish sixth in the WAC this season after going 12-19 overall a season ago and 4-10 in league play.
Newcomer Ragni Steen Knudsen paces the UTRGV offense with a 3.83 kills per set average and a .239 attack percentage. Barbara Silva fronts the Vaqueros at the net with a 1.15 blocks per set average, while Tina Sekulic leads the way in assists with a 10.35 per set average.
Thursday's contest will mark the 30th all-time meeting between UVU and UTRGV. Utah Valley enters the matchup holding a commanding 27-2 series lead, but UT Rio Grande Valley defied the odds by snapping Utah Valley's 23-match series winning streak by sweeping UVU in the opener of the 2015 WAC Tournament.
The defending conference champion NM State Aggies enter the weekend atop the 2016 WAC standings with a 9-4 overall record. New Mexico State holds wins over Albany, Austin Peay, Valparaiso, Troy, Southern, Sacramento State, Central Connecticut, Binghamton and Brown on the year. The Aggies were picked to repeat in the WAC this season after going 28-6 overall in 2015 and a perfect 14-0 in league play en route to a WAC title and a NCAA Tournament berth.
The reigning WAC Player of Week Jordan Abalos paces the Aggie offense with a 3.66 kills per set average and a .269 hitting percentage. Sasha-Lee Thomas is next with a 2.78 kills pet set clip, while Megan Hart leads the way at the net with a 0.79 blocking average.
Saturday's matchup will mark the seventh all-time meeting between UVU and NMSU. New Mexico State enters play holding a 5-1 series advantage, which includes having won five straight over the Wolverines.
Up next for UVU
Utah Valley will return to Orem for its WAC home openers next week when Chicago State and UMKC come to town. The Wolverines will first welcome the CSU Cougars on Thursday, Sept. 29 (7:00 p.m.), before closing the weekend against the UMKC Kangaroos on Saturday, Oct. 1 (1:00 p.m.). Both contests will be held in the UCCU Center due to ongoing renovations to UVU's PE Building.
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.