It's only Utah's second trip ever to the Sweet 16, but the upstart Utah volleyball team, which takes on Washington in Seattle tonight (9 p.m. MST), is poised for the challenge.
Mountain West Conference coach of the year Beth Launiere, who ran the 12th-seeded Utes through a spirited practice on Tuesday before departing Wednesday for the Pacific Northwest, paused for a moment to reflect on the magnitude of playing in the Sweet 16.
"It's a special feeling," said Launiere, who has watched her team win 19 of its last 20 matches. "It's a real sense of accomplishment."
Then she warned: No. 5 seed Washington is "a very efficient team."
But the Utes have established a worthy road record this year (14-4) and Launiere added the Utes enjoy the challenge of playing away from home.
"Some teams, when they go on the road, don't want to be with each other," she
said. "This team likes to be together."
Leading the team's charge into Seattle tonight are the three co-captains, all seniors — Lori Baird, Emillie Toone and Kathryn Haynie — which, Launiere said, have displayed extraordinary leadership.
Baird was named MWC co-player of the year, while Toone and Haynie were both named to the all-conference team. Baird and Toone are currently tied for second place on Utah's all-time blocks list with 630 apiece. Neither is likely to reach Kim Turner's school-record 670, but both are engaged in friendly competition.
"We joke about it off the court," said Baird.
"We want to beat each other, but really it is just great to be competing ... (with a competitor like her)," countered Toone.
Another Toone speciality is hitting. She ranks 10th nationally in hitting with a .399 hitting percentage and is in line to break the school career record of .346.
Toone's hitting proficiency is important, as the Utes are 26-0 when posting a higher hitting percentage than their opponents. But against the Huskies, it will take more than hitting shots.
"We have to serve and pass really well," Toone said.
Washington counts seven players on the all-Pac-10 team, including Airial Salvo, who played her first two years at Utah before transferring to Washington.
Baird roomed with Salvo when she was at Utah, but players and coaches alike are downplaying this aspect of the match.
The third member of the Utes' senior trio, Haynie, has her own opinion as to what the Utes will need to do to defeat the Huskies tonight.
"The biggest thing," she said, "is focusing on our team and what we do."
Haynie and Baird compose the only duo in Ute history to each record more than 1,000 kills in the same season. Haynie is aggressive at the net and was named to the All-District VII Academic team with a 3.947 GPA in accounting. She will stay at the U. to pursue a masters of accounting degree when the season is over.
In addition to this trio of senior leaders, sophomore Karolina Bartkowiak, also named to the all-MWC team, will be counted on heavily for the Utes tonight.
Because opponents often focus on Utah's seniors, Bartkowiak often came up with clutch points in critical situations.
"(Bartkowiak) really came through for us in crunch time the entire season," Launiere said.
NOTES: Lori Baird and Emillie Toone were selected to the All-West Region team, it was announced Wednesday by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA).
After earning honorable mention recognition the past two seasons, Baird emerged as the 2008 Mountain West Conference Co-Player of the Year. This season, Baird became the 10th member of Utah's 1,000-kill club and now ranks seventh in school history with 1,231 career kills. The Murray native finished the regular season second in the MWC and is currently 13th in the country with 1.42 blocks per set. She is second in school history with 583 career block assists and tied for second with Toone at 630 career blocks. Baird leads the team and was third in the MWC with 3.09 kills per set. She led or tied for the team lead in kills in 15 matches and in blocks 14 times. Baird has posted seven career double-doubles, three this season, including a school-record 16 block assists to go along with 11 digs in a 3-0 win at BYU on Oct. 17.
Sweet 16 showdown
No. 12Utah vs. No. 5 Washington
Today: 9 p.m. MST
TV: None Radio: None
NOTE: Saturday's regional finals will be televised live by ESPNU at 7:30 p.m. MST. If Utah wins, it will play the winner of Michigan-Nebraska match.