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Utes reclaim swagger with third straight win

After a three-match losing streak gave the Utah volleyball team a rare losing record in Mountain West Conference play, something needed to be done.

"I felt like we were playing hard, and we decided instead of playing harder, we needed to play smarter," said Utah coach Beth Launiere. "Instead of coaching harder, we needed to coach smarter. So we really broke things down statistically and by rotation and watched film."

The result was a few changes to get the team's weaker rotation fewer reps and changing some serve-receive formations to allow outside hitters to not have to handle passing chores as much, freeing them to swing away more.

Since the changes, and with a big assist from two freshman setters who are maturing daily, the Utes capped off a 3-0 week, one in which they won three shutouts, with a 3-0 victory on Crimson Court Saturday night over Air Force, 30-18, 30-28, 30-18, to get back to 6-5 in conference play and 10-11 overall. The Utes also swept Wyoming on Friday night and won in three at Utah Valley Tuesday.

They play at Utah State this Tuesday night.

"We were pretty focused and consistent in practice," Launiere said. "Everyone on this team is still very focused. The rest of the season is still in mind. We just are hitting a little bit of a stride, which is nice."

Part of the improvement came because freshman setters Stephanie Shardlow and Keisha Fisher have become proficient in setting their middle hitters. Earlier in the season, much of the offense went to the outside hitters, so teams knew where to block. Now, it's more of a guessing game for opponents.

Saturday, middle Lori Baird hit .611 with 11 kills and had seven blocks, continuing a weeklong trend. She had .429 hitting, seven kills and eight blocks at Utah Valley, .632 hitting, 13 kills and eight blocks Friday against Wyoming.

"Obviously, I can't get the kills without good sets and the good passes," she said, noting that the Utes have been practicing "ball control, the easy-roll shots and tips that come over the net, we've really been able to control on our side and get them up to the setter."

Middle Chelsey Sandberg had nine kills and .571 hitting, and between her and Baird, there was just one hitting error Saturday.

The setters have mastered the shorter, quicker middle sets that are harder, said Fisher, because they can't just put the ball high up like they do to the outsides. Fisher Saturday got three kills of her own with sneaky little "set-over" shots. Launiere said some consider that dirty pool, but she considers it a point.

"We practice and practice, so when the time comes, we know what to do," Fisher said. "We're actually connecting. We can see the hitters now."

Kathryn Haynie had 10 kills for Utah. Air Force was led by seven from Caroline Kurtz.