SALT LAKE CITY — Just after the Utah volleyball team saw its name appear on the NCAA tournament selection show aired on ESPNU, head coach Beth Launiere stood up to congratulate her players.
“I hope you guys like flying,” she said, “’cause we’re going to State College.”
The women cheered, just as they had moments before when their school name appeared on the screen along with Yale (20-4), their opponent in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The Utes and Bulldogs will meet at 3 p.m. on Friday at Penn State University — a trip that takes two flights and a bus ride from Salt Lake City.
“There’s not a better feeling for a Division I coach to see the program’s name come up,” Launiere said after the show. “You know how much hard work goes into getting your name up on that bracket.”
The Utes were 26th in the last RPI rankings, have a season record of 20-12, and finished tied with Colorado for seventh in the Pac-12 standings with a conference record of 9-11. This will be the Utes’ 11th trip to the NCAA tournament but their first since 2008, when they advanced to the Sweet 16.
“We’ve been there a lot, but there was a dry spell and we’re just glad to be back,” Launiere said. “It was a lot of hard work trying to figure out our way through the Pac-12 and how to get there from the new conference.”
Senior middle blocker Erin Redd-Brandon added that the difficult path has been a rewarding one.
“Things that are worth doing are usually never easy,” she said. “We’ve had our ups and downs and the things that we’ve had to get over, and we’ve also had the great times. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The journey has been awesome — and it’s great to see it keep going.”
A Spanish Fork native, Redd-Brandon has led the team all season in blocking with 1.4 blocks per set. That statistic is second in the Pac-12 and 17th in the NCAA. She also leads the team in hitting with a .318 percentage and is third with 2.33 kills per set.
Utah has also been led this season by the play of senior outside hitter Morgan Odale, who is third in school history with 1,308 career kills and fifth with 1,179 career digs.
Along with Utah and Yale, LIU Brooklyn and Penn State will meet in State College, Penn. The Nittany Lions are ranked second overall in the tournament, which is the reason they get to play the first two rounds on their home court.
Meanwhile, BYU (22-6) will meet another Pac-12 team in Arizona State (19-13) in Hawaii at 8 p.m. on Friday evening, while seven additional Pac-12 squads were scattered around the bracket. Washington is the third-ranked team in the tournament; USC is No. 6; Stanford is No. 7; and Arizona, California, Colorado and Oregon will each take the court this weekend.
“There are not any bad teams in the Pac-12, so I’m not surprised,” Launiere said of nine teams being selected. “(I was) so glad to see Colorado in there; they’ve been going through the same thing as us.”
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company