Wolverines fall to in-state rival Utah in first round of NCAA Tournament

The Wolverines finished 16-13 on the season (Photo courtesy of UVU Athletics).

The 2021 season came to a close for the Utah Valley women’s volleyball team Friday night, as they fell to the No. 16 Utah Utes 3-1 (16-25, 25-22, 19-25, 11-25) at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo. 

Tori Dorius led the attack with 13 kills, while Kazna Tanuvasa added nine. Kendra Nock led the Wolverines with 6 blocks and Abbie Miller logged 17 assists. 

The Wolverine defense struggled with receiving, as the Utes had three players with double-digit kills compared to just one player for the Wolverines with double-digit digs. Couple that with 27 attacking errors, and it’s easy to see where the struggles began for UVU.

Reflecting on 2021, UVU head coach Sam Atoa expressed how proud he was of his team’s accomplishments this year. The Wolverines made the NCAA tournament in the COVID-altered spring season, winning both the Spring and Fall conference tournaments to clinch the program’s first two NCAA tournament berths.

“I have a lot of respect for Utah and for the program that they have built there,” Atoa said. “I was really proud of our girls and their resilience. At one point in time it was a dream of ours to be able to get to the NCAA Tournament but this transition of where we’ve taken this program from has a lot to do with the young ladies that we have on our team. That dream is now an expectation, that we win our conference and get here, and these experiences help us to learn what we need to do to grow as a team and advance past the first round. It’s unfortunate that it came to an end but it won’t be the last time that you hear from the Wolverines.” 

The opening set had the makings of a heavyweight boxing match, with each team throwing haymaker runs, but the Utes delivered the knockout blow with a 13-3 run to close out the set. 

Set two was much closer, but after losing the opening point, the Wolverines never trailed for the remainder of the set. The Utes tied it once at 19, but aside from that UVU led the entire second frame. Dorius was a woman on a mission, logging six kills and a block in the second set victory.

Much like the first set, set three started out close but Utah pulled away as the set went on. After going on a 3-0 run to cut the Ute lead to 11-10, the Utes rattled off a 13-6 run to force set point. The Wolverines fought back with a few points, but it was ultimately too little too late. 

Set four was all Utah from the start, and the Wolverines just looked out of gas. The Utah defense was at its best in the clinching set, forcing UVU out of its system. Tanuvasa connected on a thundering kill that sparked a short 3-1 run towards the end of the set, but the deficit proved to be insurmountable. 

Coach Atoa, closing out his 23rd season at the helm of the women’s volleyball program, was emotional postgame when asked about the impact the senior leaders had on the team. 

“It’s not just about one year, it’s about a relationship you built over time. To see how they’ve grown, from the first time we recruited them and being in their homes, and to be a part of their lives, that’s why I continue to coach… The reason I keep coming back is the desire that these young ladies have.”

The Wolverines have improved significantly over the last four seasons, bouncing back from a disappointing 11-19 2019 season to post consecutive conference tournament titles.

“It’s awesome. Just the difference from my freshman year to my senior year, it’s crazy,” said redshirt senior outside hitter Kristen Bell. “Everyone on the team has bought in, it’s really proven it that we’ve gotten back-to-back WAC championships, and I can only imagine that they’re going to get more.”

Tanuvasa came up just short of claiming the all-time career kills record at UVU. She came into Friday’s game needing 15 kills to pass former Wolverine Kayli Doxey. 

“She’s absolutely a hard worker in season and off-season,” said Coach Atoa when asked about Tanuvasa’s impact on the program. “She’s one of those kids that I have to say, ‘Slow down!’ but she works really hard to make herself and get her teammates better. She has done so much for the program, and together with what she has done and what everyone else has done, has pieced together a team that’s allowed us to have these successes.”

Injuries prevented this UVU team from reaching its full potential in the regular season, but everything came together at the right time to help the Wolverines push forward to not only make the WAC tournament, but also win it over three-straight teams that had beaten them in the regular season.

“We don’t look at challenges as negatives. These ups and downs are learning experiences that we all go through,” said Coach Atoa. “It took us a little time to learn things and know what we needed to do better. Our goal was to win the conference, but we fell short of that. However, there were a few things that we made adjustments to, and we stayed the course. That swing at the end of the season… with a complete team helped us get the momentum we needed heading into the WAC tournament.”

While UVU will be losing arguably the best player in program history in Tanuvasa, as well as a trio of stellar seniors in Bell, Sadie Hamson, and Kaili Downs, the Wolverines look poised to compete for another NCAA berth in 2022. Freshman All-WAC middle blocker Jules Fink, who was limited down the home stretch of the season and didn’t play against Utah due to injury, is poised to return alongside a strong senior class featuring Dorius, Kalea Kennedy, Caleigh Vagana, and Makayla Pollard. 

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