Aug 27, 2013
OREM, Utah - After winning conference titles in the Great West Conference in each of the past two seasons, head women's volleyball coach Sam Atoa has a new goal in store for his Utah Valley Wolverines in 2013: qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
Coach Atoa's Wolverines will begin their inaugural season of play in the Western Athletic Conference this year and the new conference will give UVU an opportunity to earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament - something unavailable in the Great West Conference - for the first time in program history at the Division I level.
"We're very excited to be in the WAC. It is great for us to be in such a reputable conference with a rich history," said Atoa, who enters his 15th season at the helm of UVU volleyball. "It also provides us a full schedule, with nine teams in the conference. We're looking forward to all of those conference matches, home and away, each year in the future.
"The highlight of being in the WAC is having the opportunity to qualify for an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. It is something that we strive for and work hard for. It's something that makes us very excited for the possibilities and chances that lie ahead."
This season Atoa, a two-time GWC Coach of the Year, welcomes back eight letterwinniners and five starters from last year's squad that went 18-9 and won both the conference regular season and tournament championships. He will mix in six newcomers to the fold this year as well.
"We've got a lot of young kids this year with a few of our girls from last year leaving on missions, but we have been able to find some very quality individuals to help replace them," added Atoa. "We feel like all of these newcomers have great qualities and athletic ability. Some of them will be very, very good for us and will have the opportunity to put themselves in a spot to compete for us right away."
Three of the eight returning letterwinners were all-conference performers last season. Senior setter Brookelyn Hall and sophomore middle blocker Lauren Stringham were both named first team all-conference in 2012, while junior outside hitter Kalani Norris was named to the second team. Former standout middle blocker Erica Nish, another all-conference Wolverine from a year ago, is also back, but this time on the sideline as student assistant coach in 2013.
"The experience of these returners will be quite valuable for us. I expect big things from Brookelyn at setter, Lauren in the middle, McKenna (Tait) at libero and Kalani at outside hitter. Their successes will help us this season and I am for sure relying on what they've done and what they're going to be able do, which includes helping to lead this young program."
Utah Valley's success in the Great West didn't go unnoticed by the WAC's head coaches as the Wolverines were recently tabbed to finish third in their first season of play in the new league. The Wolverines were projected to finish just behind last season's WAC Tournament champion New Mexico State and runner-up Idaho.
"What the coaches have decided is great, however, what matters more to me is where we finish at the end of the year. There have been a lot of changes in the WAC and some of the programs really don't know how to judge each other because we haven't had the opportunity to see one another in the past. No matter where we end up, we have set some important goals for our program this year and we are shooting for a very successful season."
Reigning GWC Freshman of the Year Lauren Stringham (Kaysville, Utah) will look to lead the Wolverines in the middle again during her sophomore season. Stringham, who was recently one of two Wolverines' selected Preseason All-WAC, set single-season school records for UVU last year in total blocks (148), block assists (136) and block per set average (1.45). She also finished second on the club in kills (181) and second in attack percentage (.299).
Also playing in the middle for UVU this season will be senior Katie Fritzler (Sterling, Colo.), who finished third on the team in blocks a year ago with 81, junior Jaramey Barney (St. George, Utah), who posted 16 blocks in 2012, and redshirt freshman Rachel Steele (Orem, Utah).
UVU's lone returning setter in 2013 is senior Brookelyn Hall (Gilbert, Ariz.). Hall was the other Wolverine to recently be named Preseason All-WAC and is two years removed from receiving Great West Conference Setter of the Year accolades. Hall is a three-time all-conference performer and averaged 9.42 assists per set a season ago. She also led UVU in attack percentage in 2012 (.344), finished second in blocks with 84, second in aces with 30 and third in digs with 225.
Behind Hall, two newcomers in junior Jen Hardman (American Fork, Utah), a transfer from Dixie State and freshman Kelcee Munk (Mesa, Ariz.) will also look for playing time at setter.
Junior Cassie Wahlin (Keller, Texas) will strive to earn the starting nod at right side after having an injury plagued sophomore season in 2012 but both sophomore Kaysie Taylor (Orem, Utah) and the freshman Munk will also be vying to earn playing time at the position.
Second team all-conference selection Kalani Norris will look to lead UVU in kills in 2013 after she finished third on the team in that category in 2012 with 176. The junior from Panguitch, Utah, posted a .225 hitting percentage last season while averaging 2.44 kills per set. Also seeing the floor at outside hitter for Atoa will be true freshmen Macky Treanor (Salem, Utah) and Nakisha Willden (South Jordan, Utah). Fellow freshman Kiahna Steiner (Billings, Mont.), who Atoa says can also play middle blocker or right side, will also challenge for time on the court at OH.
Starting at libero for Atoa this season will be junior McKenna Tait (South Jordan, Utah). Tait began her sophomore campaign as an outside hitter for the Wolverines but moved back to libero midway through the season. Tait was named to the GWC All-Newcomer Team her freshman season and led UVU in aces (37) and digs a year ago (323).
Also in the back row for the Wolverines this season will be freshman Kat Biggs (Pleasant Grove, Utah) and the junior transfer Hardman.
Utah Valley will open the season this weekend at home by hosting the La Quinta Inn & Suites Invitational and it will be tested from the get-go. UVU's first match will take place against Arizona State on Friday at 7 p.m. in the PE Building. The Wolverines will conclude the tournament with a day-night doubleheader on Saturday, as it will face North Dakota State at 12:30 p.m. and No. 24 Wichita State at 7 p.m. Both ASU and Wichita State played in the NCAA Tournament last season while NDSU appeared in it in both 2010 and 2011.
"This is going to be a very tough opening tournament to start off with but we're thrilled that it's at home. We've definitely got our hands full to play a quality opponent in ASU right from the beginning. Wichita State is another very good team that was in the NCAA Tournament last year and will be a tough opponent as will North Dakota State."
The Wolverines will then have a quick turnaround for their next match, as they'll welcome crosstown rival BYU to Orem on Tuesday, Sept. 3. The contest will mark the first time that the 13th-ranked Cougars have visited Orem since the 2010 season. BYU was also an NCAA Tournament team last season as it advanced to the third round of the NCAA's.
"We feel like at some point we're going to get there (NCAA Tournament). It is important for us to be able to compete against these great programs so that we can know what we need to do to be a great program in the future. We're looking forward to these matches and to be able to take those challenges and successes from them to help us to achieve our goals this year."
In mid-September, UVU will host its second tournament of the season - the Wolverine Classic - Sept. 13-14. That weekend Utah, Idaho State and UC Irvine will come to town.
The Wolverines will then begin their inaugural season of play in the WAC on Sept. 26 at Idaho. UVU's first home WAC contest will come on Oct. 10 versus Bakersfield and the Wolverines will conclude their 16-match conference slate at NM State on Nov. 21. In all, Utah Valley will play a total of 16 home matches in 2013.
The Wolverines' season will culminate Nov. 25-27 at the WAC Championships in Phoenix, Ariz.
"Our approach this year is why not us, why not now," concluded Atoa. "If there is going to be someone hoisting that trophy at the end of the year, then why not us. Why does it have to be someone else? We're going to go into the season attacking and we feel like the talent that we have is very capable of being able to accomplish some great things."