Despite four Wolverines finishing in double digits in kills, the Utah Valley University volleyball team dropped its 2016 Western Athletic Conference opener, 3-1, to UT Rio Grande Valley on Thursday evening at the UTRGV Fieldhouse in Edinburg, Texas (24-26, 18-25, 25-17, 23-25).
Despite suffering the defeat, Madison Dennison, Alexis Davies, Lexi Thompson and Izzie Hinton all topped double figures in kills for the Wolverines (4-10, 0-1 WAC). Preseason all-conference selection Dennison and Davies led the way by each putting up a team-high 12, while Thompson added 11 and Hinton chipped in 10. Brighton Taylor led the way for the Wolverines at the net with a match-high eight blocks, while Davies and Dennison added six and Hinton tallied five. Sierra Starley paced the team in assists with 48, while Nakisha Willden led the way in digs with 30.
"I was pleased with the girls' effort and how they were able to battle back when we were trailing. We had our chances, but we just weren't able to win those two, two-point games that we needed," head coach Sam Atoa said. "The girls fought hard tonight, but ultimately it just didn't bounce our way."
In a tightly contested opening set, the Vaqueros (10-5, 1-0 WAC) were the first to pull ahead as they built a 16-11 lead following a 7-1 run. The Wolverines countered right back with a 7-2 run of their own to tie the score at 18-all. Kiahna Vernon led the rally with a pair of kills. Both teams then traded points from there until UTRGV managed to score three clutch points to take the opener by a score of 26-24.
The Wolverines looked determined to get things going in the second set, as they held a couple of early leads including a 12-10 advantage following a pair of Hinton kills and a Davies and Taylor block assist. With UVU later holding to a 15-13 lead, UT Rio Grande Valley struck back with a trio of consecutive points to take a 16-15 advantage. With Utah Valley trailing by just a point at 18-17, UTRGV managed to drive home seven of the next eight points to take the set, 25-18, and a 2-0 lead in the match.
With the Vaqueros holding to a slim 11-10 lead in the third game, UVU pieced together a 5-1 run to take a 15-12 advantage. Dennison and Thompson paced the rally with a pair of kills apiece. UTRGV later pulled to within two at 19-17, but the Wolverines answered by driving home six unanswered points to put the set away at 25-17. Davies and Dennison led the final surge for the Wolverines with four block assists during the stretch.
UT Rio Grande Valley bounced back early in the fourth set by jumping out to a quick five-point lead at 9-4. UVU countered right back, however, with a 6-1 run of its own to tie the score at 10-10. With UTRGV later holding to a 14-12 advantage, the Wolverines responded one more time with a 5-0 spurt to take a 17-14 lead of their own. With UVU still ahead 19-17, UTRGV's Alisha Watson responded with a kill and a pair of service aces to give the Vaqueros a 20-19 advantage. The set then seesawed back and forth from there until Dubravka Vukoja and Ragni Steen Knudsen managed to drill home back-to-back kills to help UTRGV take the final set, 25-23, and put the match away.
Bojana Mitrovic paced the Vaqueros on the night with a double-double of 17 kills and 16 digs.
The setback marked just the third all-time loss to UTRGV in program history, as UVU still holds a commanding 27-3 series advantage over the Vaqueros. It also marked Utah Valley's first loss in a conference-opening match at the NCAA Division I level, as the Wolverines are now 7-1 all-time in conference openers (3-1 in the WAC and 4-0 in the Great West).
The Wolverines continue their conference-opening trip at defending champion and preseason favorite New Mexico State on Saturday. UVU and NM State face off at 1 p.m. MT, at NMSU's Pan American Center. Following Saturday's contest, the Wolverines will return to Orem for their 2016 WAC home opener against Chicago State on Thursday, Sept. 29, in the UCCU Center.
"It doesn't get any easier at New Mexico State. They are the defending champs and are going to be raring and ready to go on their home court on Saturday," Atoa said. "I think that if we can keep battling and getting better at a couple of little things then we are going to be OK."
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.