Utah volleyball pushes forward by blending experience and youth

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah outside hitter Adora Anae (14) returns a serve. University of Utah women's volleyball team were defeated by UNLV during the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday, December 2, 2016 on the campus of Brigham Young University.

There’s not a lot of middle ground on Utah’s volleyball roster. A wealth of experience resides in a trio of senior returners, but they’re outnumbered by eight new faces in the form of seven incoming freshmen and one transfer.

Despite the influx of youth, the track record of that senior group and the program’s success in recent years proved enough for the Utes to garner a No. 23 ranking in the AVCA preseason poll as well as fourth in the Pac-12 preseason poll.

The Utes, who went 20-12 overall last season and 11-9 in the Pac-12, will try to build on last season when they tied for fifth in the conference (a program best) and ranked 25th in the final AVCA poll.

“It’s a very strange roster,” Utes coach Beth Launiere said. “It is. It’s just we don’t have a lot of sophomores and juniors. We have seniors and freshmen. Berkeley Oblad is a junior, who has started her whole career. Bailey [Choy] got a ton of experience last year. In some ways we’re very young. It’s interesting. People think we’re so experienced, and I think we are at some really key positions. But we also are going to have freshmen playing in some really key positions.”

Senior outside hitter Adora Anae earned Second-Team AVCA All-American honors as a junior, broke her single-season record for kills (592) and led the Pac-12 in that category. Senior middle blocker Tawnee Luafalemana comes off an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection as a junior, and she registered a team-best .329 hitting percentage.

Senior outside hitter Carly Trueman tallied 346 kills, 61 digs and 36 blocks last season. Oblad, a middle blocker, started all 31 of the matches she played last season, while Choy played in all 32 matches and started 28 as a freshman setter.

Utah hopes to use the bevy of newcomers, who’ll comprise half of the roster, to its advantage by adding new wrinkles, shots and set locations.

“Having the diversity in every position, we haven’t ever had that since my freshman year,” Anae said. “I had six seniors with me on the court [that year], but it’s a different feel this year. I just think that we’re set and prepared and we’re ready to fight and battle as much as we can.”

Launiere asserted that part of the reason the Utes landed in the preseason poll was because they “nailed” their recruiting class. The incoming class includes five players from California as well as former Brighton High standout Dani Barton.

Launiere lauded the collective volleyball IQ of the group and the high level of club competition they’ve played. Kenzie Koerber and Barton, a pair of left-handed freshmen outside hitters, will be counted on to contribute immediately.

“It’s definitely a very interesting and new dynamic, especially for some of the upperclassmen because I’m sure they’ve never had seven freshmen in one class,” said Barton. “It’s also a good thing because we’re all growing and shaping our culture for this season together. I think it’s helping us a lot. All of us are learning together to know what we expect from each other.”

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