We have to figure it out as we go along. I think it's going to be fun. —Senior middle blocker Tawnee Luafalemana
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah women’s volleyball team spent the week learning what made the Cleveland State volleyball team Horizon Conference champions.
And while taking on a completely unknown opponent may worry some players, it energizes Utah seniors Tawnee Luafalemana and Adora Anae.
“I think it’s fun when we play people we haven’t seen at all,” said middle blocker Luafalemana of Utah’s first-round opponent in the NCAA tournament, which opens play at the Huntsman Center at 4:30 p.m. with High Point taking on Purdue. “We have to figure it out as we go along. I think it’s going to be fun.”
Utah hosts Cleveland State in the 7 p.m. match with the winner of each match playing again Friday night. Launiere said she hopes Utah’s fans, which set new records for attendance this season, will come out and support not just them, but the 4:30 p.m. game as well.
“We’re excited to share this experience with our fans,” she said, calling their support “so amazing and wonderful.” “We hope they’ll get there for the 4:30 p.m. match to show the other two opponents a great environment.”
The Utes spent this week watching film of the Vikings and working on how they will defend a team that offers them some new challenges.
Cleveland State is a team that features the Horizon Conference setter of the year in Gina Kilner, defensive player of the year in senior Shannon Grega, and first team All-Horizon League middle hitter Alexis Middlebrooks.
The team’s coach, Chuck Voss, was the Horizon League’s Coach of the year, and two other players earned all-conference honors, including freshman outside hitter Emily DeGeorge, who was voted to the All-Freshman team.
“They have a senior setter, who was the setter of the year,” Launiere said of Grega, who earned 10.79 assists per set and 156 kills on the season. “She’s very savvy, a very offensive setter.”
Anae said Utah, which earned its highest seed in school history with a No. 11 seed, is looking to continue doing what helped the Utes to their best conference record (13-7) since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
“We worked on how to defend them today,” Anae said. “We are a tough team to match up with. All of our hitters are physical, and we lead the Pac-12 in kills. They’re going to have to defend us as much as we’re going to defend them. So we’re feeling pretty confident.”
Like Luafalemana, she isn’t worried that they aren’t very familiar with Thursday night’s opponent.
“We haven’t seen them ever,” she said. “We’re just going to come out full force and it’s going to come down to who can execute. Just like any volleyball match. And that will be good for us.”
Several members of the team are battling colds, but a congested Luafalemana said the sniffles won’t slow them down at all.
“We’re so ready,” she said. “We’re super excited.”