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‘Long, hard journey’: Despite choppy season, Utes ready to make run at an NCAA championship

The Utes (13-4), seeded No. 14 in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament, earned a first-round bye and will face the winner of Wednesday’s first-round match between Pittsburgh and Long Island University 

Utah volleyball coach Beth Launiere coaches her team during match against USC at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City. The Utes are in Omaha, Nebraska, this week hoping to make a run at an NCAA championship.
University of Utah Athletics

During the course of the past year, throughout the pandemic, there have been many moments when the women’s volleyball season, let alone an NCAA Tournament, seemed to be in serious doubt.

But now Utah coach Beth Launiere and her team find themselves in a controlled environment in Omaha, Nebraska, ready to compete for an NCAA championship.

The Utes (13-4), seeded No. 14, earned a first-round bye and are set to face the winner of Wednesday night’s first-round game between Pittsburgh and Long Island University.

Utah, led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Dani Drews, plays Thursday (8:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN3) at CHI Heath Center in Omaha.

Utah’s Dani Drews spikes the ball during a volleyball set against the Southern California Trojans at the Jon M. Huntsman Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021.
Utah’s Dani Drews spikes the ball during a volleyball set against the Southern California Trojans at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

“There were a lot of down times. I can recall a number of Zoom meetings where I had to share with the team that I didn’t have answers,” Launiere recalled. “I didn’t know what the future held. There were a lot of tough times. Every coach could tell you that. Honestly, it feels good to just be playing the game that we love.

“The thought of going to one place to play a national tournament with all the other teams that have gone through the same thing that we’ve gone through, it does feel like a culmination of a long, hard journey. I see it as a celebration. But obviously, we’re there to go for it.”

Due to the pandemic, this NCAA Tournament is different and unique. Rather than having 64 teams and no byes, the 2021 pandemic-altered version features 48 teams and will played over an eight-day period in Omaha.

Launiere said her players are thrilled to have the chance to play.

“They’re really excited. They’re ready for something new,” she said. “Nothing’s different with excitement level of going to the NCAA Tournament, for sure. Everyone should feel that. Everyone’s happy to be in this situation because there were a lot of unknowns leading up to it.”

There have been plenty of challenges along the way this year for Utah, with games that were canceled, including the final two matches of the regular season against Oregon State. The last time Utah played a match was a home win against Washington State on March 28.

Launiere said “choppy” would describe the season overall.

“It’s hard to get a rhythm. It’s hard to keep a mental edge. You never know from week to week what’s going to happen. We haven’t played very much,” she said. “Everything’s so different. We’re going to go into the tournament with having played one match in three weeks by the time we play. You don’t worry about any of that stuff and you just go play. That’s the mindset you have to have.”

The Utes spent last week practicing and scrimmaging at home. They left Monday for Omaha, more than one week after selection Sunday, which is also a departure from normalcy. Utah wasn’t able to practice the first couple of days in Omaha in order to undergo COVID-19 testing protocols.

“Usually, you have the selection show and you’re on the road two days later. We’re trying to pace ourselves a little bit,” Launiere said. “We won’t practice for a couple days. We have to get tested first. Then we practice Wednesday and we play Thursday. How different is that?”

Though it’s not being called “a bubble,” plenty of precautions are being taken to protect the health of participants.

“They’re calling it a controlled environment. They’re not forcing us to stay in the hotel so we can go outside and go to a park, that kind of stuff. But it will be extremely controlled,” Launiere said. “We’ll have all of our food catered in. We all have a meeting room. We have our set practice times. We’re staying at a hotel that’s attached to the convention center and the arena. We won’t go outside very much except to get some fresh air and some sun.”

Another challenge for Utah is preparing for two opponents, not knowing which team it will play until 24 hours before its match.

“We know Pittsburgh a little bit. We played them in 2019 at Pepperdine. They went to the Elite Eight in 2019,” Launiere said. “They return quite a few of those players. Not all of them. We do have some familiarity with a few of their players. They’re good. They’re physical. They’re well-coached. They run a different system than we do but they run a similar system to some of the Pac-12 teams that we’ve seen.”

As for Long Island, “we don’t have familiarity,” she said. “We’re having to spend a little bit more time figuring out what they’re about,” she said. “We’re spending time on both of opponents.”

Yes, this tournament is much different than what teams are accustomed to — but what matters most is, they’re able to play.

“This season has not been easy,” Launiere said. “We’re excited to be in the tournament. It’s worth celebrating.”