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Latest Utah-BYU rivalry clash to feature pair of top-20 volleyball teams

BYU’s McKenna Miller hits against Utah in Provo on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018.
BYU’s McKenna Miller hits against Utah in Provo on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A top-20 volleyball matchup rolls into the Huntsman Center on Thursday night as rivals Utah and BYU face off. The Cougars (7-2) enter the match with a No. 12 ranking, while the Utes (8-2) come in ranked No. 18.

“They’re excited to play up in Salt Lake and we’re preparing well. I think they’re excited and they’re excited to get back on the court and play. To be able to take on a rival team is always an exciting match and it’s going to be great,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said.

BYU enters Thursday night’s contest with only two losses — to No. 3 Texas and No. 16 Marquette. The Cougars are led by outside hitter McKenna Miller, who leads the team in kills with 116 on the season.

“McKenna is doing a good job seeing the block and swinging where she can get a kill in some space. I think she’s seeing the block well, I think she’s being assertive and decisive on her swings and she’s wanting to be out there with the team, wanting to win, and so it’s nice to see her back after missing the end of last year and all of spring,” Olmstead said.

A surprise standout for the Cougars so far has been setter Whitney Bower, who ranks 12th in the nation in aces per set.

“Whitney has done a great job leading our offense. She’s very confident in her abilities and in herself, so it’s nice to see her come in and have some energy and have some good communication skills with the team. I think she’s been a crucial part of what we’re doing,” Olmstead said.

Elsewhere for BYU, Mary Lake, Heather Gneiting and Kennedy Eschenberg are making an impact as well.

Olmstead says that BYU has been playing some of its best volleyball as of late and is encouraged by some of its road wins.

Up I-15 North, Utah also only has two losses, losing to No. 6 Pittsburgh and Cal Poly. The Utes’ most impressive victory came in a 3-0 win over then-No. 7, now No. 16 Kentucky.

“You’re always excited to play BYU. It’s a match that you want to play in and be in. It’s going to be exciting. We’re just doing our prep. Just focusing on what we can control, but the lights will be on, it will be a big crowd, it will be a lot of fun. We’re looking forward to it,” Utah coach Beth Launiere said.

Utah is led by outside hitters Dani Drews, who ranks 10th in the nation in points and 18th in total kills and has 160 kills for Utah and Kenzie Koerber, who has 112 kills.

“Both Dani (Drews) and Kenzie (Koerber) carry a big load for us. It’s so nice to have both of those two together, because whether one’s on or one’s off a little bit, we know we can go to one of them. When they’re both on, we’re pretty powerful,” Launiere said.

Berkeley Oblad, ranked 9th in total blocks in the NCAA, Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres and Brianna Doehrmann are key contributors to the team.

One reason for Utah’s fast start this year was a renewed emphasis on building culture in the offseason.

“We put in a lot of work in the offseason, we spent a lot of time working on culture and the things that we believe in as a team off the court. We did a really good job of implementing it on the court,” Oblad said.

Doehrmann says the Utes continue to improve and are excited to put those improvements to the test against BYU.

“This week, we really focused on what we can improve. The fact that we’re playing BYU tomorrow makes everything more special, because we get to put it all to work against our rival,” Doehrmann said.

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Utes and Cougars on the air

No. 12 BYU (7-2) at No. 18 Utah (8-2)

Thursday, 6 p.m.

Jon M. Huntsman Center

TV: Pac-12 Networks