We've been there a lot and it's been a dry spell, and we're just glad to be back. 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. —Beth Launiere, Utah head coach
SALT LAKE CITY — After a five-year hiatus, the University of Utah volleyball team is returning to the NCAA tournament.
The Utes earned an at-large bid to the postseason event and will face Yale in the first round at Penn State University in State College, Pa., on Friday at 3 p.m.
“There’s not a better feeling for a Division I coach to see the program’s name come up,” Utah head coach Beth Launiere said after watching the selection show with her team Sunday. “You just know how much hard work goes into getting your name up on that bracket.”
The Utes (20-12, 9-11 Pac-12) have now earned a spot in the NCAA tournament 11 times, all under Launiere’s direction and all since 1998. However, before Sunday, the last time Utah was invited to the dance was in 2008. Although the team did not appreciate sitting out of postseason play for the five-year period, the significance of returning just three seasons after entering the Pac-12 is not lost on the coach or her players.
“We’ve been there a lot and it’s been 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.”
As for their current opponent, the Bulldogs are the Ivy League champions with an overall record of 20-4 and a conference record of 13-1. They are playing in their third consecutive NCAA tournament.
Yale is led by coach Erin Appleman and junior outside hitter Mollie Rogers, who leads the team with 3.05 kills and 2.2 digs per set.
The Utes have only played Yale one other time, a 3-1 victory over the Bulldogs in September 2011. A handful of current Utah players were major contributors on that team, including senior outside hitter Morgan Odale, senior middle blocker Erin Redd-Brandon and junior hitter Chelsey Schofield.
“I’m so happy for these players, probably more than anything” Launiere said. “This group, especially Erin and Morgan, have worked their entire career for this day. I am just happy for them and for our program to be able to get back.”
Odale has led the Utes this season with 13 matches of 10 or more kills along with 2.78 digs and 2.3 kills per set. She is currently third in school history with 1,308 career kills and fifth with 1,179 career digs.
Redd-Brandon, a Spanish Fork-native, sparked the team with a team-high .318 hitting percentage and is third with 2.33 kills per set. She was second in the Pac-12 and 17th in the NCAA in blocking with 1.4 per set this season.
Schofield, out of Provo, is only five kills from being the third Utah player to reach 1,000 kills this season, and junior Shelby Dalton, a Grand County High graduate, has a team-best 2.68 kills per set on a .284 hitting percentage this year.
The winner of the Utah-Yale match will meet the winner of a match between LIU Brooklyn and No. 2-ranked Penn State. They are the Northeast and Big Ten conference champions, respectively, and will play Friday at 5:30 p.m.
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.