For the Utah volleyball program, the 2021 spring season is setting up to be a special one.
Not only are the Utes returning three All-Americans from last season, they also have the reigning Pac-12 coach of the year Beth Launiere leading the way. Because of this, Utah will enter the year as the conference favorites, as voted by the fellow Pac-12 coaches.
"I'm humbled to receive this award in a conference with so many great coaches," Launiere said after winning the coach of the year award. "The team's success in the Pac-12 is attributed to a staff that worked relentlessly and a strong group of players who were driven and committed on a daily basis. It's been a special season with special people by my side."
It's the first time in Utah history that they've been dubbed the preseason favorites, and it's for good reason. They received nine first place votes and a total of 119 points, 19 more than second place Washington. The Huskies, Stanford and UCLA were the only other teams to receive a first-place vote.
Pac-12 Preseason Rankings
1.) UTAH - 119 votes (9 first-place votes)
2.) Washington - 100 votes (1)
3.) Stanford - 99 votes (1)
4.) UCLA - 98 votes (1)
5.) USC - 81 votes
6.) Washington State - 71 votes
7.) Oregon - 59 votes
8.) Colorado - 51 votes
9.) Arizona State - 41 votes
10.) Arizona - 34 votes
11.) California - 26 votes
12.) Oregon State - 13 votes
Outside hitter Dani Drews was named a first-team All-American this past season, the second year in a row the to-be senior received All-American honors (first time being first-team). It's only the second time in program history that a Ute garnered first team honors.
"We couldn't be more proud of Dani, Kenzie, Berkeley and Saige," Launiere said. "Becoming a two-time All-American and garnering first-team honors this year is an amazing honor for her and our program. Dani worked hard this past year to improve every aspect of her game and has become one of the top all-around players in the country."
Her junior season was historic as she set the single-season record with 643 kills, being named the Pacific South Region Player of the Year. She set a program record with 33 kills against USC, all while finishing third in the Pac-12 with 4.76 kills per set.
Fellow senior and opposite hitter Kenzie Koerber was named second-team All-American this past season, improving after being named honorable mention last year. Junior setter Saige Ka'aha'aina-Torres, in just her first season starting, was named honorable mention All-American.
"Kenzie carried a huge load for us both offensively and defensively, highlighted by being one of the top blockers in her position in the country," Launiere said last year. "Saige being named honorable mention All-American is a tribute to her work ethic, focus and determination over the past year. We are so excited and her future is bright, being just a sophomore."
Koerber was the only player in the conference to be named both a Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week and a Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. She finished the season second on the team with 364 kills, second with 290 digs and third with 100 blocks.
Ka'aha'aina-Torres set a Utah program record with 1,518 assists, putting up 67 assists twice on the year, a feat not accomplished since 2010 when it was done once. Her 11.40 assists per set ranked 17th in the country.
The Utes season came to an end last year in the Sweet 16 with a 3-2 loss to Stanford. Before that though, the Utah took out Illinois and in-state rival in the first two matches of the NCAA Tournament.
Utah will begin the season ranked No. 10 in the country, the third Pac-12 team ranked in the top-10, following Stanford (No. 3, three first-place votes) and Washington (No. 8). UCLA is the only conference team ranked (No. 22) while Washington State and USC are receiving votes.
The Cardinal will not be playing the first two weeks of the season, and could potentially miss a third, due to COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County. They have yet to practice indoors and the possibility of playing 10 matches this season to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament is in legit trouble.
“I think we’re five weeks away, probably, from being able to play,” Stanford head coach Kevin Hambly said Tuesday.
Wisconsin will enter the season as the top-ranked program, followed by Texas, Stanford, Kentucky and Nebraska. Baylor, Minnesota, Washington, Penn State and the Utes round out the top 10.
Utah is set to begin the 2021 season on Friday, January 22 when it hosts Arizona. First serve is set for 6 p.m. from the Jon M. Huntsman Center.
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