Months ago, Utah volleyball coach Beth Launiere was pretty excited about what her four heralded, internationally experienced freshmen would eventually mean to a program she's been running for 16 seasons.
But even Launiere has been surprised at how quickly Colorado setter Shannon Krug and three Utahns — Murray's Lori Baird, North Salt Lake's Kathryn Lovell and Farmington's Airial Salvo — have made their marks on the Mountain West Conference and the Utes, who play their final two home matches tonight and Saturday at 7 on Crimson Court against Wyoming and Colorado State.
"For us to be 17-6 and where we're at right now — it's a tribute to our older kids, for sure, and the leadership in this program, but it's a real tribute to these kids because they had to get better, and they had to get better fast," said Launiere. "They're so much better than they were two months ago."
And so are the Utes, who in 2004 won the MWC championship, ranked as high as No. 14 nationally and beat powers like UCLA, St. Mary's and Colorado State.
In 2005, they were characterized as young after graduating five regulars.
But they have grown, and last weekend's stunning sweep of previously unbeaten, 12th-ranked BYU vaulted them to second place in the MWC. In that win, Salvo led the Utes with 15 kills, nine digs and .371 hitting to earn her second MWC player-of-the-week honor.
Krug had one of her best matches with 35 assists, six kills, three total blocks and four digs and ranks third among MWC setters. Baird tied for a team-high five blocks and remains the MWC's top-hitting freshman, fourth overall at .303. Lovell, a starter until Launiere had to install a stronger right-side block and moved Lovell to back up Shelly Sommerfeldt outside, is first off the bench.
Utah's recruiting class was deemed eighth best in the country by Volleyball Magazine last summer, and the Fab Four have lived up to that, maybe more.
As proof, the Utes are hitting exactly the same percentage as they did last year when they had two senior setters and three senior hitters, said Launiere. That means Krug's sets have been effective — "It's pretty amazing what she's doing," Launiere said — and the other three have hit efficiently.
Krug has shown the most improvement "in terms of understanding this game in the most difficult position. Just how poised she is, she's handling the pressure," Launiere observed.
"It was hard to come in mentally," Krug said, "because it was a lot different than what we've been used to. Like in high school, you can come in and have a bad match and still pull away a win, but here, you have to bring your 'A' game every time and people are depending on you to bring it every night. It gets a little tiring mentally as a freshman."
Baird has been the best surprise. "I didn't know how she'd hold up throughout the course of a Division 1 season," Launiere said, citing a strength issue, "and she just has been so stable the whole year. I didn't expect the kind of numbers she's putting up."
Salvo, a member of the U.S. Junior National Team, was expected to be strong, but her "ability to come up big in the big matches has been what's impressive to me," said Launiere, noting the two BYU matches were Salvo's best. "She's really impressing us with that big-time quality."
Lovell has thrown herself into the backup role and taken it upon herself to make others better, she said. "There's a lot of days in practice where she's the best player in the gym," said Launiere. "I can't wait for her to be on the court full-time."
The four have "handled the pressure very well," said Launiere, most impressed by their ability to mature quickly. "There's been times when all of them have crashed and burned throughout the course of the season, and yet they continue to respond. Honestly, I don't even think of them as freshmen."
"I think we all knew that the only place we could go was up," said Baird, "Looking back, though, you can tell, like, what a big difference."
"At the beginning of the season it felt kind of rocky," said Krug. "We didn't know each other very well. Nobody knew what was actually going on. Now, we've just become more comfortable with each other."
The players have been impressed at how well not only the four of them — who live together and have many of the same classes — but the whole team have bonded. It's their favorite experience so far.
"To be able to play all the time and to be around the girls and on a team that gets along so well is just awesome," said Lovell. "We help each other with everything."
Said Salvo, whose mother played at Utah, "All the girls just click really well together, and it's so much fun just being around them. I don't ever get sick of them."
Added Baird, "Just being part of a team is awesome because it's like our support group."
For Krug, who had perhaps the hardest transition because she was the setter from Day 1 and had to keep everyone happy and involved, the best thing has been, "Just going through adversity with this team and seeing how far we've come. It's been an amazing experience. Together, we've accomplished a lot."