SALT LAKE CITY — Entering her 31st year as the head coach of the Utah volleyball team, Beth Launiere is as excited as ever. Though the fall volleyball season was postponed by the Pac-12 due to the pandemic, there’s still hope a season will start in the spring if not sooner.
It’s been a long road to her 31st season, one that has seen the Utes go from a doormat to a power in the Pac-12, one of the top volleyball conferences in the country.
In 1990, Launiere took over a program that had gone 1-32 the prior season. In her first year as head coach, Launiere improved that to seven wins in the school’s first year in the WAC.
“We beat Fresno Pacific for our first win. I don’t even know why we were playing them, but that was my first win,” Launiere said. “It was in five sets and it felt like a national championship. We got up to seven wins that first year. After our second win, I remember everyone was so excited. I said, ‘We’ve got to raise our expectations here.’”
Much of Launiere’s first seven years with the program were spent building it up, basically from scratch. In 1998, Utah landed its first NCAA Tournament appearance and its first tournament victory, beating Illinois State in the second round. The Utes had arrived and they weren’t going away anytime soon. Utah appeared in the NCAA Tournament nine consecutive times from 1998-2006. In 2001, Utah beat Utah State in the second round of the tournament to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.
“That second era, we went (nine) straight years to the NCAAs, we went from the WAC to the Mountain West, and that was a great era. We were winning (conference) championships and going to the NCAA Tournament,” Launiere said.
In 2011, Utah volleyball embarked on its Pac-12 journey, one that would change the program forever. Suddenly, the Utes were competing in one of the nation’s best volleyball conferences, playing against top programs like Stanford and UCLA.
After two losing seasons as the program transitioned into the Pac-12, the Utes were back in the NCAA Tournament, going to the Big Dance six of the past eight seasons. Utah has made the Sweet 16 two times in the past three years, with appearances in 2017 and 2019.
“I feel fortunate to have been able to spend the last 10 years in the Pac-12 and the challenges, just the honor to be playing in one of the top volleyball conferences in the country and everything that came along with that,” Launiere said.
Launiere has many fond memories throughout her 30 years at the helm of the Utah volleyball program — the first Sweet 16 appearance, rallying back from 0-2 to beat No. 1 Stanford in five sets in 2000, and any win against BYU — especially last year’s second-round NCAA Tournament win over the Cougars to send the Utes to the Sweet 16.
There was also the 2008 season, when the team dedicated the season to Launiere’s mom, Sally, after she passed away three weeks before the season began. That squad captured a MWC championship and went to the Sweet 16. Launiere also counts the relationship with her players and overcoming challenges with them as her favorite memories after 30 years on the job.
“Just working with the young people, the young athletes and understanding with a lot of humility and awe, the impact that you can have on these players’ lives and the awesome responsibility of it,” she said.
Over 30 years, Launiere has developed and changed as a coach, able to mold the program into her vision
“Thirty years is a long time. I would say I’m not even close to the same coach or person as I was that long ago, obviously. There’s been a lot of growth in my coaching and my career, and I’ve learned a lot and I feel like I’m still learning and I’m still curious about the learning process,” Launiere said.
“I feel like now, we’re focused on a lot of teaching and learning and so many things, where in the early days it was just about a little bit more of just basic Xs and Os. Now it’s so much more about the learning process. It’s about the development of these young players.”
Coming off of last season’s Sweet 16 appearance, Utah returns a lot of key pieces, including outside hitters Dani Drews and Kenzie Koerber as the Utes look to break through to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.
Though the season is in jeopardy, Launiere is excited for her 31st season, whenever that may come.
“Other than other things that’s going on in the world today, I’m extremely excited,” Launiere said. “We had such a great year last year. We return a lot of players from that team. I think the group returning this year is very motivated and excited. I’m just as excited as I’ve ever been.”