Sitting home during the NCAA volleyball tournament for the first time in 10 years has University of Utah coach Beth Launiere "extremely motivated for next year," and she and her staff are using this "free week" to finish up recruiting and prepare early for 2008.

Certainly this wasn't what the Utes wanted, but a team that unexpectedly lost three starters to injury or transfer before the first match gave a pretty good account of itself playing one of the nation's toughest schedules.

At 15-15 after playing 15 matches against opponents who were nationally ranked, winning four of them, Launiere has figured out that her young team had an RPI so strong it probably would have been invited to the NCAAs if it had won one more match. It came just three points shy of qualifying outright, losing the Mountain West Conference tournament championship match and automatic bid by that margin to UNLV last Saturday in Las Vegas.

"We just came together," Launiere said. "It took a while because we had so many question marks at the start. This team just never gave up, never quit working hard and always just kept saying, 'Let's keep getting better.'

"As we finally got a lineup in place, got people in the right positions, the last month it finally came together, and we started executing at a pretty high level."

High enough to win four of the last five including beating both then-No. 20 UNLV in the second-to-last regular-season match and then-No. 20 Colorado State, the MWC regular-season champion, in the MWC tournament semifinals.

While some veteran players such as juniors Lori Baird (team-best .316 hitting percentage) and Kat Haynie (team-best 3.65 kills per game) learned to step into leadership roles, true-freshman setters Keisha Fisher and Stephanie Shardlow had to get acclimated to teammates and college play.

Sophomore Chelsey Sandberg worked her way into the lineup and, along with Fisher and Shardlow, made the biggest strides of the season, Launiere said. Senior Kate Robison came on strong at the end, and senior Whitney Webb was always a stalwart.

Once the coaches found the combinations to best utilize player strengths — running a 6-2 system and moving true-freshman Karolina Bartkowiak to right-side hitter from the middle and Sandberg to the middle from the right side — the wins started to come.

"We did the best we could. I don't think anyone in our program has any regrets," Launiere said. "It was absolutely a successful season."

Utah loses four seniors — libero Connie Dangerfield and hitters Webb, Robison and Hilary Taylor. It should regain 6-foot-7 senior Emillie Toone, who missed the year with a summer ACL tear, and it has signed three recruits while still looking to sign another outside hitter.

Signing letters of intent this week were Payson's 6-3 middle blocker Miranda Bradshaw, 6-1 outside hitter Sarah Hibbert of Anchorage, Alaska, and 6-0 setter Abby Simmons of Phoenix. Hibbert, a three-year all-stater on a team that won three straight state championships, graduates early and will enroll at Utah in January and get a chance for offseason workouts with the team.


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