The Utah Valley University volleyball team will conclude its regular season this weekend with a pair of key Western Athletic Conference matches against Grand Canyon and CSU Bakersfield. Both matches will be contested in UVU's newly renovated PE Building, and the Wolverines first face GCU on Thursday at 7 p.m., before capping their regular season against CSUB on Saturday at 1 p.m.
Thursday's match is Senior Night for Utah Valley, as seniors Kelcee Munk, Kiahna Vernon and Nakisha Willden will be honored before the first serve, while Saturday's regular season finale could be a battle for second place in the WAC standings and a first-round bye in next week's WAC Tournament as the Wolverines enter the weekend just a game back of second-place Bakersfield in the conference standings.
"These are two important matches this week. We're fighting hard for seeding in the tournament and the pressure is on," head UVU coach Sam Atoa said. "We're excited to be home and having the opportunity to take care of things on our home court. That's the challenge for us, and we're looking forward to taking care of what we can control."
UVU (13-13, 8-4 WAC) enters the weekend having won nine of its last 11 matches after winning a pair of contests last week and in third place in the conference standings with an 8-4 league record. After winning its program-best sixth five-set match of the season, 3-2, in non-conference action against in-state foe Weber State on Nov. 1, Utah Valley returned to conference play and recorded a three-set sweep at WAC foe Seattle U on Saturday, 3-0.
Trailing SU by a score of 21-16 late in the opening set, the Wolverines reeled off a crucial 9-0 run en route to taking the opening set, 25-23, and the match in straight sets.
Vernon paced UVU in the contest with a match-high 13 kills and Lexi Thompson was next with eight. Madison Dennison led way at the net with six blocks, while Sierra Starley and Brighton Taylor added five blocks apiece. Starley also chipped in a match-high 27 assists, six digs, three service aces and three kills.
Thompson leads the Wolverines offensively on the season with 277 kills and a 2.98 per set average, while Dennison paces the squad at the net with 156 total blocks and a 1.50 blocks per set average and Willden leads the way from the back row with a WAC-best 4.99 digs per set average. Dennison's blocking tallies are also good enough to lead the WAC and rank her fourth nationally in total blocks (156) and 10th in blocks per set average (1.50).
As a team, the Wolverines currently find themselves ranked fourth in the country in total team blocks with 312.0 and sixth in blocks per set average with a 3.00 per set clip.
About the opposition
GCU comes to Orem with a 5-19 overall record and a 1-11 clip in conference play after snapping an 18-match losing streak with a 3-1 win over Chicago State last week. The victory marked Grand Canyon's first since Sept. 3, when it defeated Eastern Washington in straight sets at home. The Lopes, who are currently tied with Chicago State for seventh place in the conference standings, were picked to finish seventh in the WAC this season after going 7-21 overall and 3-11 in league play in 2015.
Randahl Powers paces the Grand Canyon offense with 176 kills, while Katrice Pond leads the way with a 3.17 kills per set average. Hannah Hicks tops the team at the net with a 0.90 blocks pet set clip.
Thursday's match will mark the eighth all-time meeting between the Wolverines and Lopes. UVU enters play holding a perfect 7-0 record over GCU after picking up a 3-1 win over the Lopes in Phoenix last month.
CSU Bakersfield enters the weekend with a 12-13 overall record and in second place in WAC play with a 9-3 conference ledger. The Roadrunners have won six-straight matches including a pair of sweeps over UMKC and Chicago State at home last week but will make the trek to Seattle to face Seattle U on Thursday before coming to Orem on Saturday. The 'Runners are just two years removed from an NCAA Tournament appearance after winning the 2014 WAC Tournament. CSUB was picked to finish second in the WAC this year after going 13-15 a year ago and 10-4 in league play.
Two-time conference player of the week Carol Grasso leads CSUB and the WAC in kills, service aces and points, as she enters the weekend averaging 4.00 kills per set average, 0.60 aces per set average and 4.85 points per set. Katie Dunbar-Lowe leads the 'Runners at the net with a 0.88 blocks per set clip.
Saturday's contest will mark the 17th all-time meeting between the Wolverines and Roadruners. UVU enters play holding to a 9-7 series lead after defeating the 'Runners in Bakersfield in five sets earlier this season.
Up next for UVU
Following the conclusion of this week's matches, the Wolverines will head to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the 2016 WAC Championships. Matches are slated for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16-18, at New Mexico State's Pan American Center. The winner of the event will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit WolverineGreen.com.