Volleyball looks to build unity in second straight road game

By Jake Bullinger

Fresh off a trip to Illinois, the Utah volleyball team prepares for yet another road tournament.

The Utes will compete in Missouri State’s Dr. Mary Jo Wynn Invitational in Springfield, Mo., this weekend.

Utah will open the tournament at 3:30 p.m. Friday against the Oklahoma Sooners.

Oklahoma, 5-3 in 2010, has been solid on defense this season, although its offense has provided some inconsistencies.

The Sooners have three players with at least 94 attacks and a hitting percentage of .309 or better. However, Utah has a higher team overall hitting percentage—a .229 compared to Oklahoma’s .206.

Although Oklahoma has good defense and an attack that can be lethal, it has shown one weakness that bodes well for Utah: The Sooners have gone 0-2 this year in matches at neutral locations.

The toughest challenge for Utah might come from tournament host Missouri State.

Although Missouri State might not be a well-known name to the casual sports fan, the Bears have a well-respected volleyball program. Missouri State has been to eight NCAA tournaments and has 11 consecutive 20-win seasons.

So far, 2010 does not appear to be a down year for the Bears. Missouri State is off to a 6-1 start this season and has dropped only four sets in its seven matches.

Missouri State has the highest hitting percentage (.263) and the lowest opposing hitting percentage (.152) of all the teams in this weekend’s tournament.

After playing Missouri State at 11 a.m. Saturday, the Utes’ final match will come against the St. Louis Billikens at 4:30 p.m. the same day. St. Louis has gone 2-4 this season.

Head coach Beth Launiere said that the hard-fought game against Northwestern last weekend helped the players prepare for the stiff competition they will face in Springfield.

The Utes put in a new blocking system that will help slow down opponents’ key hitters this week. The scheme, which essentially shadows a star player, might come in handy against hitters such as Oklahoma’s Suzy Boulavsky. The Sooner has totaled 108 kills this season, the most of any player in the tournament and 44 more than her next closest teammate.

In contrast to the beginning of the season, Utah’s defense is becoming its strong point. If the Utes hold their opponents below a .200 hitting percentage—as they have done in three of their last four matches—a successful tournament is within reach.

With the increased defensive consistency, Utah’s success might be on the shoulders of its attack. Karolina Bartkowiak, Morgan Odale, Sarah Collette and Brooke McAlister have all shown the potential to be 10-plus kill threats. This hitting diversity made an appearance in last weekend’s Northwestern Challenge, and it will be a large factor in Utah’s success at Missouri.

Another key element to Utah’s success will be team unity. The Utah players had a meeting after last weekend’s Morehead State loss and decided to come together as one force.

“We don’t have any freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors,” libero Keisha Fisher said. “We’re all just one team going together.”

Utah has traditionally been a strong team at home, but Launiere isn’t worried about being away from Crimson Court for such a long stretch.

“It’s good to go on the road to spend some time together,” she said.

Read more here: http://www.dailyutahchronicle.com/sports/volleyball-looks-to-build-unity-in-second-straight-road-game-1.2325198
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