The Utah Valley University volleyball team looks to continue its winning ways this week when it welcomes New Mexico State and UT Rio Grande Valley to town for a pair of key Western Athletic Conference clashes.
The Wolverines first open the home stand against the undefeated and defending conference champion NM State Aggies on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., before closing the weekend against the second-place UTRGV Vaqueros on Saturday at 1 p.m. Both matches will be held in the UCCU Center, and live video will be available for both by visiting the Wolverine's athletic website.
"I'm really proud of what the girls have done since we last played these two teams. We've continually gotten better and better and have now put ourselves near the top of the WAC standings," head UVU coach Sam Atoa said. "All we can do is embrace the opportunity that we have to host these two opponents at home. I'm excited about that, and I really like where we are at right now as we start the second half of conference play."
UVU (9-11, 5-2 WAC) enters Thursday's match on a five-match winning streak and in a tie for second place with UTRGV in the conference standings with a 5-2 league record. The Wolverines have defeated WAC foes Chicago State, UMKC, Seattle U, CSU Bakersfield and Grand Canyon during the streak.
After winning the first three contests at home during its current stretch, Utah Valley ventured out on the road last week and earned a hard fought five-set victory over CSUB (9-25, 26-24, 24-26, 25-23, 15-7) before capping the trip with a 3-1 win at GCU (23-25, 25-23, 25-9, 25-12).
Last week's WAC Player of the Week, Madison Dennison, paced the Wolverines against the Antelopes with a match-high 15 kills and seven blocks. She also posted a season-best .583 hitting percentage, two digs, an assist and a service ace. Lexi Thompson and Kiahna Vernon were next for UVU in the contest by recording 11 kills apiece, while Kelcee Munk came through with 42 assists, nine digs, six blocks, two kills and two aces and Nakisha Willden led all players from the back row with a match-high 29 digs. As a team, UVU outhit GCU, .312 to .086, in the match.
The senior setter Munk did a nice job of stepping in for Sierra Starley, who missed last week's matches with an illness, as Munk helped lead Utah Valley to the pair of victories by averaging 9.56 assists, 2.11 digs, 1.00 blocks, 0.44 kills and 0.33 aces on the week. She also recorded the first double-double of her career in Thursday's five-set come-from-behind victory over the Roadrunners by notching a career-high 44 assists and 10 digs. Munk then followed that up with her 42 assist, nine dig and six block effort against the Lopes.
Dennison paces the Wolverines on the season with a .275 hitting percentage, 119 total blocks and a 1.53 blocks per set average. Her 119 blocks and her 1.53 per set blocking average are also good enough to lead the WAC and respectively rank her sixth and ninth in the nation. As a team, UVU also leads the WAC in blocks (237.0) and ranks fourth in the country with the 237.0 total blocks and fifth nationally with a 3.04 blocks per set average.
Willden also leads UVU and the WAC in digs with a 5.10 per set average, while Thompson paces the team in kills with 191 and a 2.85 kills per set clip.
This week's matches will mark the final home contests of the season that will be played in the UCCU Center, as renovations to the PE Building are scheduled to be completed prior to the Weber State match on Nov. 1.
About the opposition
NM State comes to Orem with a 17-5 overall record and an unblemished 7-0 mark in WAC play. The Aggies dropped their most recent match to in-state foe New Mexico in non-conference play on Sunday but prior to that had won 11 matches in a row. NMSU was picked to repeat in the WAC this season after going a perfect 14-0 in league play a year ago en route to winning the 2015 WAC Tournament and earning a NCAA postseason bid. NM State enters Thursday's contest having won 21 straight WAC matches.
Jordan Abalos leads the Aggies and ranks third in the WAC in kills with 295 and a 3.78 per set average. Tatyana Battle is next in kills with a 2.96 per set average, while Megan Hart fronts NMSU at the net with a 0.93 per set blocking average.
Thursday's contest between UVU and NM State will mark the eighth all-time meeting between the two foes. The Aggies enter play holding to a 6-1 series lead after defeating Utah Valley in five sets earlier this season in Las Cruces.
UTRGV enters the weekend off to its best start in school history with a 15-7 overall record and tied for second in the WAC with a 5-2 league ledger but will face Seattle U in the Emerald City on Thursday before coming to Orem on Saturday. The Vaqueros have won three-straight matches after defeating Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Chicago State and UMKC at home last week. UT Rio Grande Valley was picked to finish sixth in the conference this season after going 12-19 overall a year ago and 4-10 in WAC play.
A trio of Vaqueros average more than three kills per set on the year, as Ragni Steen Knudsen leads the team with a 3.78 per set clip and Bojana Mitrovic and Alisha Watson follow with respective averages of 3.43 and 3.11. Barbara Silva tops the team in blocks with a 1.26 average.
Saturday's matchup between the Wolverines and Vaqueros will mark the 31st all-time meeting between the two conference foes. UVU enters play holding a lopsided 27-3 series lead despite dropping its last two meetings against UTRGV.
Up next for UVU
The Wolverines hit the road for a Midwest swing next week when they travel to UMKC on Thursday, Oct. 27, and Chicago State on Saturday, Oct. 29. Following the matches, UVU will return home for its first match of the season in the newly renovated PE Building on Tuesday, Nov. 1, against in-state rival Weber State.
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.