Tough schedule paid off for UVU volleyball

Photo by Mykah Heaton

A common criticism in college athletics is the tendency of programs to schedule “cupcakes” through their nonconference play to start the season. These are teams that are scheduled as an easy win or a tune-up as opposed to teams that would really present a challenge. If anything could be said to bring down the football powerhouse that is the University of Alabama, it would be that its schedule this season included Western Kentucky, Kent State and the Division II University of Chattanooga; these teams would not push the Alabama players to new heights.

The Utah Valley University volleyball team did all it could this season to do the opposite of that scheduling phenomenon. It scheduled teams that would challenge its players through nonconference play. In fact, UVU’s first three opponents, including No. 6 BYU, finished their seasons a combined 59-22. Aside from BYU, the Wolverines also played two other opponents that were nationally ranked in the top 25 at the time of their contests, Hawaii and Washington.

Unfortunately, the immediate result of the tough schedule was that UVU was 0-5 in those games, losing them all in straight sets by a combined score of 376-245. When playing games against tough opponents that are intended to stretch teams to the best of their abilities, though, the takeaways have to be away from the scoreboard. This was something that head coach Sam Atoa did well to keep in mind after the brutal nonconference schedule.

“I’ve felt like we’ve played very well against some of these tough teams, especially what we did in Hawaii and that was on the road,” Atoa said after the nonconference finale against Cal State Northridge. “That’s something that we’re going to talk about and feel like we can build on it. If we can compete against Hawaii and Washington on the road, in hostile territory, we should be able to take and learn from that and then be able to compete against these [conference opponents] too.”

UVU took the experience it got in those rough nonconference games and used it to channel its talent into a successful stretch of play in the Western Athletic Conference that shocked a lot of people. The Wolverines’ Madison Dennison finished as the conference leader in blocks with 83. Nakisha Willden led the conference in kills with 326.

At the end of the season, UVU was sitting in second place in the WAC with a conference record of 10-4. Two of its four WAC losses, including its only loss at home, came against the regular season champions, New Mexico State, which only lost one game in WAC play. Even in those games, UVU didn’t go quietly, forcing a fifth set in each contest before falling 3-2. How much the early stretch of opponents impacted the conference play results is impossible to quantify, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

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