Behind a match-high 17 kills on .500 hitting, senior Madison Dennison helped Utah Valley University overcome an early deficit en route to recording a 3-1 victory over the sixth-seeded UMKC Kangaroos in the opening round of the WAC Volleyball Tournament on Thursday evening at the UTRGV Fieldhouse (24-26, 25-22, 25-20, 25-20).
With the win, the third-seeded Wolverines (15-15, 9-5 WAC) advance to the tournament's semifinal round to face the second seed and host UT Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros on Friday. UMKC's (9-19, 5-9 WAC) season comes to a close with the setback.
"We kind of struggled to get things going and certain individuals seemed to be a little out of sync early in the match. But we just kind of put it on Madison and she carried us through," head UVU coach Sam Atoa said. "I was really proud of her, as well as the contributions that we received from Izzie Hinton and a few others tonight as well."
Besides posting a match high and tying a career high with 17 kills, the nation's leading blocker Dennison also added a match-best seven blocks. Fellow seniors Lexi Thompson and Sierra Starley too played well, as they notched double-doubles with 13 kills and 10 digs and 38 assists and 13 digs, respectively. Fellow senior Brighton Taylor and sophomore Izzie Hinton also had nice outings by adding six blocks apiece in the victory, while freshman Seren Merrill led the way from the back row with a match-high 19 digs.
"This was an awesome win. I'm proud of our team for breaking through and pulling together and finishing things off," Dennison said. "I started off a little shaky, and I realized that I needed to step up. When I started stepping up my game, it seemed to spark the rest of the team as well."
In a tightly contested opening set, the Kangaroos were the first to jump ahead at 14-11 following a 5-0 run. The Wolverines then answered back with consecutive points on a kill from Thompson followed by a UMKC attack error to pull within one at 14-13. The Roos later stretched their lead back to three at 17-14, but back answered UVU with a 6-1 run to take a 20-18 advantage of its own. WAC All-Freshmen team member Kristen Allred capped the run with a pair of kills. With Utah Valley holding a 23-21 lead, Kansas City struck back with a clutch 5-1 run to take the opening set by a score of 26-24. Alicia Harrington led the final rally with a pair of kills.
The Roos continued to hold the upper hand early in the second set, as they jumped out to an 11-6 lead. The Wolverines later made it a two-point game at 13-11 following a 4-1 spurt. Play at the net was key during the stretch, as UVU blocked a trio of UMKC attack attempts. With Kansas City holding an 18-15 advantage, Utah Valley drove home five-straight points to take a 20-18 lead. First-team all-conference performer Thompson led the UVU run with a pair of kills and a block. With UVU later holding a 23-21 advantage, the Wolverines managed to score two of the final three points to take the set, 25-22, and tie the match at 1-1. Hinton and Taylor led the Wolverines in the set with five blocks apiece.
In another tightly battled third game, UMKC pulled out to a 14-12 advantage following an Alex Ratzlaff ace and a UVU attack error. The Wolverines then struck back with a 5-1 run to take an 18-16 lead. The first-team all-WAC selection Dennison paced the rally with a pair of kills and a block. Up 20-19, Utah Valley then bounced back with a kill and a block from Thompson to take a 22-19 lead. Following a UMKC point, the Wolverines drove home a trio of consecutive points to take the set, 25-20, and a 2-1 lead in the match.
Trailing 8-5 in the fourth set, UVU drove home a trio of consecutive points to tie the score at 8-all. The Roos then struck back with a 3-1 run to momentarily take an 11-9 lead, but back answered UVU with three unanswered points to take a 12-11 advantage. UMKC aided the Utah Valley run with a pair of errors. Later tied at 16-16, the Wolverines reeled off a clutch 5-1 spurt to take a 21-17 lead. Dennison and Alexis Davies led the run with a block and a kill apiece. Holding a late 23-20 advantage, UVU drove home a kill from Megan Boudreaux followed by a UMKC attack error to take the set, 25-20, and the match.
As a team, UVU recorded 17 total team blocks while the Roos posted nine. The Wolverines also outhit UMCK, .191 to .099.
With the victory, the Wolverines now head to the semifinal round of the tournament against the UTRGV Vaqueros. In a rematch of last year's title contest, UVU and UTRGV will do battle on Friday at 6 p.m. MT, at the UTRGV Fieldhouse. The winner of that match will then advance on to Saturday's championship contest against either No. 1 New Mexico State or No. 4 CSU Bakersfield.
"We knew that this was going to be a tough road for us. We also knew that we would face UTRGV on their home court if we were fortunate enough to get by UMKC," Atoa said. "I like our chances, and I feel like our kids are doing some good things right now. We'll come out and play better ball tomorrow and we'll see what happens."
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit GoUVU.com.