It’s the number one thing I enjoy about this job is watching players grow, for sure as volleyball players. —Beth Launiere
SALT LAKE CITY — Outside of impressive volleyball skills, it is hard to see the similarities between Adora Anae, Carly Trueman and Tawnee Luafalemana.
Luafalemana is effusive, talkative, open and energetic. Anae is warm, engaging, introspective and generous. Trueman is uncomfortable in the spotlight, self-effacing, honest and maybe a bit too hard on herself.
The three seniors on the No. 11 seeded Utah volleyball team have led the program to new heights and broken individual records, while creating a team chemistry that has sustained the team through some rough patches, including a three-game losing streak at a critical point in the season.
Whatever the differences in their individual personalities, they share a relentless work ethic, a commitment to team first, and a competitive nature that has helped the Utes to their best performance in the Pac-12 with a 13-7, 22-9 record. Their effort earned them fourth-place in what is arguably the country’s most competitive volleyball conference (nine Pac-12 teams were invited to the NCAA tournament) and a number of individual conference honors.
On Thursday night, they will lead their teammates in hosting the NCAA Tournament at the Huntsman Center — a goal they boldly declared after losing in the first round of last year’s tournament.
“Our players put it on their goals early on,” said head coach Beth Launiere of hosting Thursday’s first-round games at 4:30 and 7 p.m. “That was important to them to be able to play in front of our home crowd, and they didn’t mince words about that. Early on, we didn’t talk about it a ton, but everybody knew in the back of their minds, this was a big goal for us.”
A critical component in the team’s ability to achieve that goal was the example and leadership of those three seniors.
“Our seniors have been providing us tremendous leadership,” Launiere said.
Among the accomplishments of Utah’s seniors are that all three, along with junior Berkeley Oblad, earned All-Pac-12 honors. Anae earned first-team recognition, while the others were honorable mentions.
This season Anae became Utah’s all-time kill leader with 1,857 kills. She moved up to No. 5 in career digs with 1,284. She is just the fifth Utah player in the program’s history to earn more than 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs.
Trueman became the 18th player at Utah to surpass 1,000 kills in a career. She did so in the team’s five-set win over UCLA.
Launiere said seeing the evolution of her players over the course of their careers is her favorite aspect of coaching.
“It’s the number one thing I enjoy about this job is watching players grow, for sure as volleyball players,” she said. “It’s amazing to see how much bigger, stronger and faster, how much more skilled, their volleyball IQ, all of those things that helps them become better volleyball players, but, more importantly, watching them grow from little freshmen signing their letter of intent, or junior college transfers, and watch them become strong, confident women.”
Whether it is learning to play through adversity, inspiring one’s teammates or earning a college degree, Launiere said, the seniors have to find faith in themselves to succeed on all of those levels.
“They’re going to finish with a degree,” she said. “They’ve played for one of the top teams in the country. To do that, you need to be strong, you need to be mentally strong. I’m very proud of them.”
Each senior, she said, adds something different and has taken a unique path to leadership in the program.
“Besides her physical talent, and she has a tremendous amount, Adora is a great competitor,” Launiere said. “I always tell the players that they’re powerful beyond measure, and that’s Adora. She doesn’t like to lose, and she’s a person who will do whatever it takes to win.”
Anae’s humility sets her apart from many elite players, as well as her willingness to sacrifice for her teammates.
“She knows this is about the team,” Launiere said. “As good as she is, we need her to lead this team.”
From the moment Launiere met Luafalemana she knew she wanted to coach her.
“After the first time I met Tawnee, I knew I absolutely wanted her on my team,” Launiere said. “She is, and I don’t know how else to define, she is a winner. She has the most positive outlook on life. I know her family is great competitors, and you know, very loyal, positive people. She is everything I thought that she could be.”
Trueman didn’t play the position she wanted for the first year and a half she was at Utah. Midway through her sophomore season, she moved to outside hitter, and that proved to a great change for both her and the team.
“We were so excited when she got her 1,000th kill,” Launiere said. “She’s only the 18th player in the history of our program to do that. It’s quite an accomplishment. Carly is quiet, but she’s also a very determined athlete. She’s a very intelligent kid who really gets what is going on. When Carly speaks, people listen because they know she’s put a lot of thought into it.”
For both coaches and players, it is a great joy that the seniors will get at least one more game in the Huntsman Center in front of the fans who’ve supported them through the ups and downs of their careers.
“It’s a huge factor, where we play,” Anae said. “So we’re excited.”