SALT LAKE CITY — BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse would normally offer one of the most hostile environments the Utah volleyball team experiences.
But after the Utes earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s first round hosted by No. 13-seeded BYU in Provo, their rival's gym became a reward for their best finish since joining the Pac-12.
“I think it’s exciting for our fans to be able to follow us,” said Utah head coach Beth Launiere after the Utes learned they will face UNLV in the first round of the tournament in Provo. “The last two years we went to Penn State and Nebraska, and that makes it difficult. I am happy for our fans, and I really hope they come down. It should be an exciting two days.”
Utah (20-11) will face UNLV (23-7) at 5 p.m. MST Friday at Smith Fieldhouse. The Cougars (27-3) will play Princeton (19-4) in the first round of the tournament at 7 p.m. MST Friday. One of BYU’s three losses is a preseason loss to Utah in a match played at Smith Fieldhouse, a fact that makes the invitation to Provo even more inviting.
“I’m actually stoked to be at BYU because of the rivalry,” said senior captain Tess Sutton. “And I know we have one game before we can get there, but I know we’ll take care of it.” The fact that Utah only has to travel 30 minutes to compete in the first round of NCAA play is a positive for many reasons, but Launiere warned the players about even considering the possibility of playing BYU a second time this season.
“We thought there was a chance we’d go to BYU, and we talked about that,” Launiere said. “If you aren’t happy to be in the tournament and focus on your first opponent, then you just shouldn’t be in. It’s all about who you play. It doesn’t matter where you go.”
The Rebels enjoyed their third 23-win season in school history and finished third in Mountain West Conference play. They have some tremendous talent, starting with junior setter Alexis Patterson, who earned a triple double in the team’s final victory of the regular season against New Mexico.
The coach and players don't know much about the Rebels, but that’s something they’re actually looking forward to after a brutal Pac-12 season in which they earned their best finish since joining the conference — fifth place.
“I think this will be a great way to start out,” said sophomore setter Jessie Openshaw of their opponent. “I’m excited. This will be so great to be in Provo and to make it a home crowd. We’re just ready to bounce back from how we ended the season and show what we’ve got.”
Junior outside hitter Adora Anae said the team’s three-game losing skid to end conference play isn’t indicative of their ability.
“We’re excited,” she said after the selection show. “We’re determined and we want to get better so we can go right at them Friday night. … This whole year we’ve been doing great, and we’re destined for great things. I have a lot of confidence in this team and in this program. We’re pumped up and ready to go. … It’s a new season, and we’re just super excited to show our progression.”