Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Utah’s first and second Sweet 16 appearances came in 2017 and 2019. Those were the third and fourth appearances by Utah, joining the 2001 and 2008 squads.
Ninth-ranked Husky volleyball hosts #7 Utah this weekend in what could be the match of the year in the Pac-12.
The idea of that would have sounded very strange five years ago.
Rewind to February 2016 (in between seasons, because normally volleyball plays in the fall). Washington and USC were co-champs of the Pac-12 at 18-2 and both went to the Elite Eight, while Stanford finished alone in third at 16-4 and had an amazing recruiting class on the way. Utah, meanwhile, went 4-16, and in their five years since joining the Pac-12 had yet to post a .500 conference record, topping out at 9-11 in 2013 and 2014.
USC has certainly still been an above-average team in the conference, but the Trojans haven’t been on the same level since National Player of the Year Samantha Bricio graduated in 2015, although they did make a somewhat-surprising Elite Eight appearance in 2017. USC has not looked good so far in spring 2021 — a sweep of Cal last weekend brought their record up to just 3-5.
Stanford’s freshman class would turn out to be all that and more, as Kathryn Plummer, Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz and Audriana Fitzmorris would go on to lead Stanford to a 22-1 record in the NCAA tournament as Stanford won three national titles in their four seasons, the first team to do so since Penn State won four straight from 2007 to 2010. With all of them graduating prior to the 2020 season, it was clearly going to be at least a few steps back for Stanford in 2020, but the pandemic could not have come at a worse time for them. The combination of an extremely young team without much experience as a unit and difficulties even being able to practice with Santa Clara County’s heavy COVID restrictions has Stanford limping out to a 1-3 start and unranked in the AVCA poll for the first time ever.
Utah, on the other hand, was just about to turn the corner. The Utes have won at least 10 Pac-12 matches in each of the past four seasons, making their third and fourth Sweet 16 appearances in program history in 2017 and 2019, respectively (first since 2008). With chaos at Stanford and significant turnover at most other top Pac-12 programs (including Washington), the veteran Utes were picked by the coaches to win the conference and are off to an 8-0 start, earning their highest AVCA ranking in program history at seventh.
Every series that has been played between two of the top five in the standings (#7 Utah, #9 Washington, #17 Washington State, #22 Oregon and #15 UCLA) has resulted in a split. WSU, Oregon and UCLA all faced each other in the first three weekends, and then UW split at UCLA the week after that. The only one not to face another member of that top group so far is Utah, who was supposed to host Oregon last weekend but cancelled the matches due to COVID issues.
Players to watch
Any preview of Utah has to start with Dani Drews. The 6’0” senior outside hitter leads not only the Pac-12 but the Power Five at 4.93 kills/set, outpacing even reigning National Player of the Year Yossiana Pressley of Baylor (4.72). She offers a really unique set of skills to guard, in part due to the fact that she is a very rare left-handed player who plays outside hitter — the vast majority lefties who play in the front at all end up playing on the right, allowing their swinging arm to be closer to the setter.
Drews is on the left to make room for Utah’s #2 option offensively who is also a senior lefty in 6’3” Kenzie Koerber. Koerber doesn’t have quite the assortment of off-speed shots and body control that Drews has but makes up for it with one of the most powerful arms for a pin-hitter in the conference, much like UW right-side Samantha Drechsel.
As a team, Utah is holding opponents to a paltry .109 hitting percentage, which is also best in the Power Five (second: Kentucky .122). Utah does it with a combination of elite serving and good back-row defense: Koerber and OH/DS Madelyn Robinson are 1-2 in the Pac-12 in aces/set to give the Utes a remarkable 2.17 aces/set as a team, which — stop me if you’ve heard this before — is best in the Power Five (second: Illinois 1.97, UW is third at 1.79). No Pac-12 team is ever going to put up top dig numbers nationally because the hitters and blockers are just too dominant, but the Utes do rank second in the Pac-12 with 14.66 digs/set.
With all of these gaudy numbers, where does UW have the edge? At the net. Utah’s tallest regular is the 6’3” Koerber (middle blockers Phoebe Grace and Kennedi Evans are both 6’2”) and the 5’10” Robinson is one of the two players that’s seen significant time at OH2 behind Drews. All five of UW’s primary hitters are at least 6’2”, with MBs Lauren Sanders and Marin Grote plus RS Drechsel all at 6’4”. That helps UW average 2.55 blocks/set, second in the Pac-12 behind WSU’s 2.74. Utah averages just 1.90 b/s, putting them in ninth.
How to watch
The Huskies and Utes will play Thu, Feb. 25 at 6pm and Sat, Feb. 27 at 11am. No general admission tickets will be available due to the pandemic. Live streams of both matches will be available for free through Pac-12 Plus.