The Great West Conference is deceiving by two thirds, with “conference” as its only accurate description. As for “west,” that depends on your definition. English immigrants of the 1600s may have considered New Jersey Institute of Technology part of the western world, but it hardly fits the modern-day mold.
“Great” is also hard to swallow, at least at Utah Valley. The Wolverines are defending region champions in seven sports, and the others that fell short kicked themselves for underachieving. Every UVU program feels they should, not just be able to, win the conference crown.
And that’s exactly what volleyball head coach Sam Atoa wants to avoid this year.
“We’ve been talking about the importance of being consistent regardless of the level of play,” Atoa said. “That can always be and has been a challenge in trying to play at our level, especially if our opponent we’re competing against is not quite at that level.”
The Wolverines recent road trip may have provided a necessary dose of humility. Heading into last Saturday’s region opener at North Dakota, UVU had gone 4-4 on an eight-game road swing after starting the season 6-2. Superlative play from middle blocker Erica Nish (GWC Player of the Week) and sophomore outside hitter Lindsay Barker was tempered by lack of execution and a rough stretch from Chelsey Heaps. The senior outside hitter leads the team in kills and attempts as the offense’s number one option, but isn’t converting at the rate she did in 2010 (.137 compared to .190).
Atoa hopes the continued good play of Nish, Barker and Jaicee Kuresa on the outside will free up Heaps in conference play.
“Just like football where you have to run the ball, you can’t survive on just outside hitters, just like you can’t just keep launching the [football],” Atoa said. “There has to be a balanced attack, a good working relationship in the middle and with those on the outside. I think we’re doing that. Chelsey in some number of games has not played well for one reason or another, however she’s somebody that never quits.”
Quitting may not be an option for the Wolverines, but letdowns in conference play left them short of conference titles the last two years. Atoa admits UVU has been tempted to let their guard down when playing Houston Baptist and North Dakota after facing the likes of Michigan, Syracuse and St. Mary’s. This year, he has implored the team to focus on themselves more than the opposition.
“It’s tough, it really is,” Atoa said. “However, it is what we expect to be better at and what we hope to be better at this year, regardless of who we’re playing. That’s the challenge of playing some very good competition early in the year, and then during conference it just drops a little bit. We have to be able to know how to deal with that. We have to be the better team. The last couple years we have not been the better team in doing what we need to do during the conference season and the tournament.”