I think this year we have that mature mindset on and off the court. So it was great to get the sweep tonight. —Utah senior outside hitter Adora Anae
SALT LAKE CITY — In the week leading up to Thursday’s first-round NCAA Tournament match, the Utah volleyball team practiced on the same court, watched film in the same rooms and spent every night in their own beds.
In fact, the team didn’t even have to ride a bus to an intimidating new stadium as part of their 2017 NCAA Tournament experience.
But hosting the first two rounds of the tournament didn’t diminish their experience. It was the reason they worked so hard all year.
“I thought it really felt like the NCAA Tournament,” said head coach Beth Launiere after Utah swept Cleveland State 25-14, 25-21, 25-12. “Everybody around the athletic department was excited and fired up. So for this entire week it’s felt like we were going to the NCAA Tournament.”
Senior outside hitter Adora Anae, who led the team offensively with 11 kills, said it reminded her of her freshman season when they traveled to Nebraska and swept their first-round opponent.
Their goals are much bigger than getting an invitation to a far-away city.
“I know what it takes to get to the tournament and what it takes to be in the tournament,” said Anae, who is battling a cold this week. “I think this year we have that mature mindset on and off the court. So it was great to get the sweep tonight.”
The Utes came out focused and prepared.
“I loved how we came out from the start,” Launiere said. “That’s been a focus of ours all week. We’ve been talking about it, and we also knew Cleveland State would have a pushback, and they did in set two because they’re a good team. But I thought we also handled the ebbs and flows throughout the course of the match and I thought we handled what came at us.”
Launiere had high praise for her team’s serving, passing, blocking and the way setter Bailey Choy, who finished with 26 assists, distributed the ball.
“When you have your serve and your block, then you know you’re going to score some points,” she said.
Choy said the passes gave her almost limitless options.
“The passes allowed me to set almost anyone,” the sophomore said. “Our preparation was spot on, I think.”
Cleveland State coach Chuck Voss said Utah did what they thought they would, only a bit better.
“They passed the ball better than we anticipated,” he said. “And you know, offensively they’re extremely difficult to stop.” He said the effectiveness of Utah’s block, led by senior middle hitter Tawnee Luafalemana and freshman Kenzie Koerber, who had five blocks each, undermined the confidence of some of his players.
“With some of your attackers, at times some of the shots that they normally hit that score don’t score, and then they end up trying to do things they’re not comfortable doing,” Voss said. “And then the errors pile on top of one another. Before you know it, they start questioning themselves. And it’s very difficult to play at that point. And obviously, Utah forced us into that.”
The Vikings were led by Alexis Middlebrooks, Gina Kilner and Trinniti Hall, who had six kills each, as well as Rachel Stover, who added seven kills.
Utah out-blocked Cleveland State 16-4, and the Utes' hitting percentage got better every set.
In the tournament’s first game at 4:30 p.m., Purdue defeated High Point in four sets 21-25, 25-14, 25-22, 25-12. That means Utah will face Purdue Friday at 7 p.m. at the Huntsman Center.
Purdue head coach Dave Shondell said Thursday’s match was the best preparation the Boilermakers could have as they struggled with focus and intensity in their win over High Point.
“By not going out here and blowing through these guys, that has definitely prepared us better to go through the war we went through for the next match,” he said. “We’ve been initiated in the NCAA Tournament. I do think that will help us.”
Choy said the Utes would likely start watching video of Purdue before going to bed Thursday night.
“Tomorrow we’ll wrap it up and be more specific on what we’re really going to focus on,” Choy said.
Anae said much of the work they’ve done this season is on focusing on their own abilities and having a strong mental game.
“We’re ready for tomorrow,” she said.