Fresh off a five-set victory over CSU Bakersfield in last Saturday's regular-season finale to claim the No. 2 seed for this week's conference tournament, the Utah Valley University volleyball team heads to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to open the 2016 WAC Tournament on Friday at 5 p.m., in the semifinal round against either No. 3 Bakersfield or No. 6 Seattle U.
With last Saturday's clutch 3-2 win in a battle for second place in the conference standings against CSUB, the Wolverines finished their regular season at 15-13 overall and tied for second place in the WAC standings with a 10-4 conference mark. UVU also earned the two seed and a first-round bye at the tournament by holding the tiebreaker over the Roadrunners.
"There's no guarantees with a first-round bye, but we're excited to let others duke it out in the opening round so that we can save our energy for Friday," head UVU coach Sam Atoa said. "It's nice that we secured the two seed. Instead of three matches we now have two, and we're hoping that we can take care of things both physically and mentally at the tournament."
The Wolverines enter the tournament on a five-match winning streak and having won 11 of their last 13 matches to enter the weekend as the tournament's No. 2 seed. During its current five-match streak, UVU has defeated WAC foes Chicago State, Seattle U, Grand Canyon and Bakersfield, as well as in-state foe Weber State in non-conference action.
In last Saturday's regular-season finale against CSUB, UVU managed to hold on late to pull out a tightly contested five-set thriller over the 'Runners (25-18, 25-17, 21-25, 20-25, 15-12). After taking the first two sets and dropping the next two, the Wolverines managed to break a late 12-12 fifth-set tie thanks to a critical 3-0 run to put the match away. Madison Dennison paced the final Wolverine run with a kill and a block.
Dennison finished with 11 kills and six blocks on the day, while Lexi Thompson paced the Wolverines with a team-high 21 kills, a solid .425 hitting percentage and four blocks. Kiahna Vernon, Brighton Taylor and Sierra Starley too played well for Utah Valley, as Vernon put up 10 kills, Taylor recorded a career-high 11 blocks and Starley notched her eighth double-double of the season with 44 assists and 10 digs.
Thompson earned the first WAC Player of the Week honors of her career on Monday after her 21-kill performance against CSUB. In two matches last week, the Wolverine junior outside hitter averaged 4.00 kills on .393 hitting, 4.43 points, 0.86 blocks and 0.86 digs for the week. Thompson leads Utah Valley offensively on the season with 305 total kills and ranks sixth in the WAC in conference-only play with an average of 3.40 kills per set.
Dennison and Nakisha Willden not only lead UVU in blocking and digs with respective averages of 1.48 blocks and 4.99 kills, but Dennison also ranks fifth in the nation in total blocks with 166 and 11th with her 1.48 blocks per set average. As a team, the Wolverines also enter the WAC Tournament ranked third in the country in total team blocks (336.0) and sixth in blocks per set average (3.00).
About the opposition
CSUB enters the tournament as the No. 3 seed after finishing with a 13-14 overall record and tied for second place in the conference standings with a 10-4 league record. The 'Runners open play on Thursday against the sixth-seeded SU Redhawks. The winner of that contest advances to face the Wolverines in Friday's semifinal match. Bakersfield, which enters play having won seven of its last eight matches, is just two year's removed from winning the WAC Tournament and earning its first NCAA Tournament berth at the Division I level.
Outside hitter Carol Grasso paces the 'Runners and the WAC in kills, points and service aces with respective per set averages of 4.11, 4.97 and 0.62, while Katie Dunbar-Lowe tops the team in blocks with a 0.87 per set clip.
Utah Valley enters the tournament holding to a 10-7 all-time series lead over CSUB after defeating the 'Runners twice in five sets on the season.
Seattle U earned the No. 6 seed into this week's tournament after going 13-14 overall and 6-8 in league play. SU faces off against Bakersfield on Thursday with the winner advancing on to face the Wolverines on Friday. The Redhawks enter the tournament having dropped three of their last four matches.
Matea Mamic and Katarina Marinkovic pace the Redhawks offensively on the year with respective kill per set averages of 3.41 and 3.33. Kory White and Maja Stojanovic are tops on the team in blocks by averaging 1.10 and 1.06 blocks per set.
The Wolverines also hold a 6-5 all-time series lead over SU after winning both prior meetings on the season.
Utah Valley all-time in WAC Tournament play
UVU is searching for its first-ever victory in WAC Tournament play after dropping its opening-round contest in each of the past three seasons. After being eliminated in first-round action by Seattle U in five sets in both 2013 and 2014, the Wolverines found themselves on the wrong end of a 3-0 decision to UT Rio Grande Valley last season in Kansas City, Missouri. This season, UVU enters the tournament with its first opening-round bye after earning the No. 2 seed for the first time in WAC Tournament history.
Where Dennison, UVU rank nationally
Junior middle blocker Dennison not only leads the WAC in blocks (166 total blocks and a 1.48 blocks per set average) but also ranks fifth nationally in total blocks and 11th in the country with her 1.48 blocks per set average. As a team, the Wolverines also lead the WAC in blocks (336.0 total blocks and a 3.00 per set average) and those tallies are good enough to rank UVU third and sixth nationally, respectively.
With a five-set victory over CSU Bakersfield on Nov. 12, Utah Valley set a program record for its most five-set victories in a season at the Division I level with seven. The Wolverines also set another school record for the most five-set thrillers in a season with 10, as they are now 7-3 in 2016 in five-set matches, which includes a 4-2 mark in conference play.
Up next for UVU
The winner of Friday's semifinal matchup will advance on to the tournament's championship match on Saturday, Nov. 19, at 7 p.m., against either No. 1 New Mexico State, No. 4 UMKC or No. 5 UTRGV. The winner of the WAC's title contest will receive the league's automatic bid into the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.