The third-seeded Utah Valley University volleyball team had its 2017 season come to a close with a tightly contested 3-1 setback to No. 2 UT Rio Grande Valley in the WAC Tournament semifinals on Friday night at the UTRGV Fieldhouse in Edinburg, Texas (27-29, 25-21, 24-26, 21-25).
"I'm proud of our girls. We fought hard. In fact, that was one of our best efforts in terms of being able to fight. But unfortunately, it didn't go our way," head UVU coach Sam Atoa said. "I'm very proud of the team's resolve, and the way that they continued to get after it, especially there at the end. We felt like we had a chance, but we just weren't able to convert a few opportunities in those tight sets."
In her final match, senior Madison Dennison not only notched a career-high 20 kills on .533 hitting and a match-high seven blocks, but she also became UVU's single-season record holder in total blocks and block assists with respective tallies of 191 and 173 on the season. She also became Utah Valley's all-time leader in career block assists last week with 531, and she finished just seven blocks shy of becoming the program's all-time leader in total blocks with 572 and 24 kills shy of surpassing 1,000 (976) for her esteemed career.
Fellow seniors Sierra Starley and Lexi Thompson too played well for the Wolverines by posting respective double-doubles of 46 assists and 11 digs and 11 kills and 13 digs. Freshman Kristen Allred also notched a double-double with 10 kills and 11 digs, while senior Brighton Taylor finished her career with seven kills and four blocks and fellow senior Marija Martinovic added three digs.
"It's hard to talk about these seniors because of how hard they've worked and how much they mean to me. We've had our challenges and battles over the years, but it's just been a delight to be able to coach each one of them," Atoa said. "I'm proud of Madison for what she's accomplished, as well as Sierra, Lexi, Brighton and Marija."
The Vaqueros (17-11, 10-4 WAC) were the first to get things going in the opening set, as they built an early 5-2 lead. The Wolverines (15-16, 9-5 WAC) immediately responded, however, by scoring three of the next four points to pull within one at 6-5. UTRGV later pulled out to a 13-7 advantage following a 6-1 run. Trailing 14-8, Utah Valley then made it a two-point score at 14-12 by reeling off four-consecutive points. Dennison and Allred led the rally with a kill and a block apiece. The Vaqueros later regained their five-point advantage at 18-13, but back stormed UVU with a 6-0 run to take a 21-20 lead. The Wolverines later took a 24-23 set-point advantage following a Dennison kill, but back answered UTRGV with consecutive points to take a 25-24 advantage. Later deadlocked at 27-all, the Vaqueros drove home back-to-back kills from Ragni Steen Knudsen and Alexandra Ecker to take the marathon opening set by a score of 29-27.
Trailing 7-4 in the early stages of the second set, Utah Valley got things going with a 4-0 run that was capped with back-to-back service aces from Allred to take an 8-7 advantage. With the Wolverines later holding a 12-10 lead, UT Rio Grande Valley reeled off three-straight points to regain the lead at 13-12. Tied at 16-16, UVU then drove home consecutive kills from Dennison and Thompson followed by a block assist from Starley and Taylor and a UTRGV attack error to take a 20-16 advantage. Up 21-19, the Wolverines scored three of the next four points to take a 24-20 lead. After a Vaquero point, UVU put the set away on an Allred kill to tie the match at 1-1. The senior Taylor led the way for the Wolverines with four kills in the set.
In a tightly contested third game that featured 17 ties and six lead changes, the Wolverines were the first to lead by more than a point since the early stages of the set, at 22-20, following a Thompson kill and a Taylor and Thompson block assist. The Vaqueros bounced right back, though, with a 4-1 run to take a 24-23 lead. UVU briefly tied the score at 24-all, on a UTRGV service error, but back answered UT Rio Grande Valley with consecutive Steen Knudsen kills to take the set, 26-24, and a 2-1 lead in the tournament semifinal match.
With UVU holding an early 6-4 fourth-set lead following a pair of Allred kills and another from Dennison, UTRGV responded with a 5-1 lead to take a 9-7 advantage. After a Utah Valley point, the Vaqueros reeled off seven unanswered points to take a 16-8 lead. With UTRGV holding an 18-9 advantage, the Wolverines wouldn't go away as they responded with four-consecutive points to pull within five at 18-13. Megan Boudreaux led the spurt for the Wolverines with a pair of kills.
Trailing 19-14 in the fourth, the Vaqueros reeled off an important 4-1 run to take a late 23-15 lead. Utah Valley then once again countered with six-straight points to make it 23-21. The senior Dennison paced the rally with two kills and a block. But it wasn't enough as UTRGV finished off the match on a UVU attack error and a Bojana Mitrovic and Veronika Jandova block assist to hold off the late comeback attempt and take the fourth set by a score of 25-21.
Despite suffering the defeat, UVU outblocked UTRGV, 13-8, in the contest, as well as posted a solid .224 attack percentage.
The contest marked UTRGV's fourth-straight win over UVU and the third-straight year the Vaqueros have eliminated the Wolverines from the WAC Tournament.
With the defeat, Utah Valley finishes its 2017 season with a 15-16 overall record and a third-place finish in the WAC with a 9-5 league record.
With the win, UTRGV now advances to the tournament's championship match on Saturday against the fourth-seeded CSU Bakersfield Roadrunners at 6 p.m. MT.
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit GoUVU.com.