Utah volleyball had one of top returning teams in country, but now patiently waits until spring
Utes taking advantage of delayed start by honing skills they may not have been able to otherwise
After making it to the NCAA Sweet 16 last season and returning most of its top players this year, the Utah volleyball team was realistically figuring to be one of the top teams in the country this season.
“We have as much returning as anybody in the country,” said Utah coach Beth Launiere, who also added a key transfer and some talented incoming freshmen to her squad.
The Utes had a strong schedule on the docket and were excited for big things this fall. Instead, the Utes, like the rest of the college volleyball teams in the country, are patiently waiting to play matches next spring, while honing their skills this fall.
As disappointing as it is for Launiere and her team, they’ve been trying to make the best of their situation.
“We’re training three to four days a week, taking advantage of the opportunity to focus on fundamental skills you usually don’t have time to work on,” said Launiere. “For a coach, that’s been really nice. The players would rather play, but we’re getting a lot accomplished, getting a lot of skill work in.
“I think it was hard for the players at first, coaches too, because we hadn’t been in any routine. But now we’ve established our routines and everybody’s getting back in the mindset of training and getting better, so it’s going well.”
“We feel really fortunate for the chance to get better. The team has bought in. We’ve been talking to the players about getting the mindset right, taking advantage of this time to work on skills and fundamentals.” — Beth Launiere
Utah has been able to practice since late in the summer, while other top programs in California, like Stanford, Cal, USC and UCLA have been shut down for much of that time as some of their schools haven’t even been open.
“We feel really fortunate for the chance to get better,” Launiere said. “The team has bought in. We’ve been talking to the players about getting the mindset right, taking advantage of this time to work on skills and fundamentals.”
The biggest priority for the NCAA has been to get football and basketball back on track, which it has, with nonrevenue sports like volleyball and soccer being put on the back burner and being postponed until spring.
Launiere believes the spring season will be shorter than a usual fall season, perhaps eight to 10 weeks and will most likely be conference-only games. Depending on how the virus is at that time, the NCAA tournament could be played within a bubble like the NBA, WNBA and NHL did.
The Utes lost two key seniors, libero Bri Doerhmann and middle blocker Berkeley Oblad, who was a second-team All-American, but return everyone else.
The Utes are led by senior outside hitter Dani Barton Drews, a first-team All-American who has been a starter all three years since coming out of Brighton High.
Other returnees include outside hitter Kenzie Koerber, an honorable mention All-American, Zoe Weatherington, a starting outside hitter who made the Pac-12 all-freshman team, middle blocker Phoebe Grace and Kennedi Evans, who redshirted last year after starting as a freshman in the middle.
The Utes are also happy to have Madi Robinson, who transferred from BYU, where she was a starting outside hitter for a 26-5 team.
“We lost two seniors that played a lot, but we certainly have some key players back,” Launiere said. “They’re all in. They were coming back no matter what, they made that statement to me early on they wanted to have a significant senior year, they didn’t want to have it get cancelled.”
Launiere and her team are excited about having a spring season that’s not going to count against their future eligibility.
“There’s an opportunity for some players to get some experience,” said Launiere. “I don’t know I’m not sure how I’m going to attack it. Do you use it to try to win a national championship or do you use an abbreviated schedule to get ready for the following fall. It’s going to be interesting.”
Among the new players for Utah are Allie Olsen, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker from Montana; Vanessa Ramirez, a libero from California; Abby Karich, an outside hitter from California; and Sommer Daniel, a defensive specialist from Iowa.
“We keep using word ‘opportunity,’” Launiere said. “We can think about how bad it is, but this is giving us more time to develop around our returning players. It’s a great opportunity for us.”