The Utah Valley University volleyball team had its 2016 Western Athletic Conference Tournament run come to a close with a 3-0 setback to UT Rio Grande Valley (23-25, 21-25, 23-25) in the tournament's championship match on Saturday evening at New Mexico State's Pan American Center in Las Cruces.
With the setback, the second-seeded Wolverines finish their season with a 16-14 overall record, a second-place finish in the WAC standings with a 10-4 conference record and just one victory shy of earning the program's first WAC Championship and the program's inaugural trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"You've got to hand it to UTRGV, they played well tonight. We gave ourself a chance, but we just weren't able to convert there at the end," head UVU coach Sam Atoa said. "It's a hard way to lose, especially with it being in a championship game, but this will not be our last appearance. We will continue to be motivated by this and get ourselves back by continuing to represent the Wolverines the way that we know how."
Despite suffering the defeat, senior libero Nakisha Willden and junior setter Sierra Starley were named to WAC All-Tournament Team after averaging respective tallies of 5.62 digs and 10.25 assists. Willden capped her final collegiate match by posting a match-best 20 digs, while the junior Starley put up 33 assists, seven digs, five kills and three blocks against the fifth-seeded Vaqueros (21-13, 7-7 WAC).
"I'm proud of both of them. They worked very hard this season and were a great example for our younger girls," Atoa said. "It's tough to see Nakisha go. We were hoping that we'd be able to sustain this for at least one more match, but it wasn't meant to be."
The Vaqueros were the first to get things going in the opening set, as they opened up a 10-5 lead following a 6-1 run. After a Wolverine timeout, Utah Valley answered back with four-straight points to pull with one at 10-9. Brighton Taylor led the spurt with a pair of blocks and a kill. UVU continued to hold the upper hand, as it later tied things up at 12-12 on a Starley kill. With the Wolverines later trailing by just a point at 16-15, UTRGV took advantage of three-straight UVU attack errors to take a 19-15 advantage. A couple of points later, Utah Valley returned the favor with a 5-1 spurt to once again tie the score at 21-all. After each team traded a point apiece, the Vaqueros managed to score three of the final four points to take the opening set by a score of 25-23. First team all-WAC selection Bojana Mitrovic led the final rally for UT Rio Grande Valley with a pair of clutch kills.
The Wolverines bounced back early in the second set, as they jumped out to a 10-7 lead following a 4-1 run. Taylor led the UVU spurt with a pair of kills. UTRGV didn't waste any time evening the score, however, as it immediately countered back with three-straight points to tie the score at 10-10. The Vaqueros later pulled out to a 19-14 lead after a 7-2 run of their own. Following a Wolverine point, UTRGV responded with back-to-back points to take a 21-15 lead. With Rio Grande Valley later holding to a 23-16 advantage, UVU countered back with four-straight points, but it wasn't enough as UTRGV went on to take the set, 25-21. Second team all-conference performer Alisha Watson paced the Vaqueros in the second set with six kills.
Utah Valley erupted out to a quick 4-1 lead in a must-win third set, but back answered UT Rio Grande Valley with three-straight points to tie the score at 4-4. The score then seesawed back and forth from there until the Vaqueros managed to reel off a 5-1 run to take a 14-11 lead. UVU cut the deficit to two on a Starley kill, but UTRGV answered with a 4-1 run to extend its lead to five at 18-13. With Rio Grande Valley later holding to a 21-16 lead, Utah Valley countered back with consecutive kills from Madison Dennison followed by back-to-back UTRGV attack errors to trail by just one at 21-20. The Vaqueros bounced back down the stretch, however, by scoring three of the next four points to take a 24-21 match-point lead. Utah Valley then countered with a Kiahna Vernon kill and a Taylor and Starley block assist to make things interesting at 24-23, but UTRGV put the match away the very next point on a kill from the 2016 WAC Tournament MVP Watson.
Despite the setback, second team all-conference performer Lexi Thompson paced UVU with a team-high 11 kills, while first team all-league selection Dennison and the senior outside hitter Vernon each added eight. Taylor too had a nice match for the Wolverines by recording a team-high five blocks to go along with five kills.
Ragni Steen Knudsen led UTRGV on the night with a match-high 15 kills, while Watson added 12 and Mitrovic chipped in 11.
The setback marks just the fourth all-time defeat to UTRGV, as the Wolverines still hold a lopsided 28-4 series advantage over the Vaqueros.
Saturday's contest marked the final match for a trio of Wolverine seniors, in Willden, Vernon and senior setter/right side hitter Kelcee Munk.
"This is the time of year that is really tough. It's always hard to have to say goodbye to some kids that have been a big part of this program for the past four years. Hopefully all three of them have learned something that they can take with them in the future," Atoa said.
Despite dropping the tournament title match, UVU concluded its season having won six of its final seven matches to reach the WAC Championship match for the first time in program history and to finish the year with a .500 or better season record for the 11th time in the past 12 years.
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.