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Nobody plays to win the preseason coaches poll.
Utah volleyball head coach Beth Launiere admits that she thinks her team's Pac-12 ranking 10th belies the strides her program has made. But, she said after acknowledging that it may sound like typical "coach speak," the ranking isn't what's important.
"You just go out and try to get it done."
The Utes have steadily improved since changing leagues in 2011, from 11-20 to 14-19 to 21-13. Last season, they finished seventh in the Pac-12 and won an NCAA Tournament match before falling in straight sets to eventual champs Penn State.
This year, they return six players with starting experience five of whom are seniors and add the most athletic freshman class Launiere can remember in her 25 years.
So what gives, Pac-12 coaches?
Well, the Pac-12 may just be that good.
The nine teams ahead of Utah all received votes in the AVCA preseason Top 25. Three Stanford, Washington and USC are in the top five.
And while Utah boasts more experience and athleticism overall, they did graduate standout middle blocker Erin Redd-Brandon and outside hitter Morgan Odale, whose names are myriad in the school's record books.
Still: "I wouldn't bet against us," Launiere said.
Among the seniors who will be back at Crimson Court when Utah opens against Montana State on Friday night are Shelby Dalton and Chelsey Schofield-Olsen. Both are thought of highly enough that they spent time representing the nation's best collegians in China over the summer Dalton with a Team USA squad and Schofield-Olsen with Pac-12 All-Stars.
Dalton was named an honorable mention All-American at right-side hitter last year, but she may switch to outside hitter to offset the loss of Odale. Schofield-Olsen, who married Utah basketball's Jeremy Olsen during the offseason, had 302 kills last year and is noted for her all-around skills.
Other returning seniors with starting experience are middle blocker Bailey Bateman, sixth in the Pac-12 with 1.27 blocks per set, and setter Kalee Kirby. Junior setter Kendall Cygan started 21 matches last season. And senior Lea Adolph and sophomore Tess Sutton, who are battling to start at libero, both appeared in 30 matches.
Add to that mix a group of match-ready freshmen, and Utah has as much depth as it ever has, Launiere said. At the end of practice Wednesday, the starters needed 37 points to edge the upstarts in a spirited, winner-take-all set.
True freshmen who may see action this year include outside hitter Eliza Katoa, outside/right side hitter Adora Anae, and setter Jessie Jorgensen.
And Launiere is very bullish about 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman Carly Trueman whether she plays middle blocker or outside hitter.
"She's an exciting athlete," Launiere said. "She's an undersized middle that jumps and moves as well as anyone in the country."
Trueman whom Schofield-Olsen said can jump and touch a mark 10 feet, 5 inches high said she practiced at right side last year and has played middle this year, but her only preference is "on the court."
"The talent is so high on our team that anybody could play on any given night, senior, freshman, whatever" Schofield-Olsen said.
It didn't reach that point as quickly as Launiere had thought it might, given Utah's track record of success entering the Pac-12, but recruits are "starting to buy into the fact that we can be a player in this conference."
Now they just have to convince the coaches.
Utah women's volleyball overview
Expectations • Pac-12 coaches tabbed the Utes to finish 10th in conference, but after making the NCAA Tournament last season and finishing seventh, the program hopes to finish in the upper half of the nation's most competitive volleyball league.
Coach • Beth Launiere, 25th season, 471-290
2013 record • 21-13/9-11 (7th, Pac-12)
Notable returners • Shelby Dalton and Chelsey Schofield-Olsen are two candidates for postseason Pac-12 honors after playing for collegiate all-star teams in China over the summer.
Notable losses • There are only two, but Erin Redd-Brandon and Morgan Odale were two of Utah's most reliable players.