Note: This is a guest-written article from Zach Boyd, who covers Utah State Olympic sports for The Aggship.
LOGAN – The deliberation is over, and the votes are conclusive: Utah State is a volleyball school, and based on the recent play of the Aggies, it may stay that way for a while.
It was a jam-packed opening stretch to start the season, which saw the Aggies play six games in nine days. They went head-to-head with two formidable, top 40 teams, battled five players ranking in the top 40 for blocks per set, and confronted a team they hadn't defeated in 13 years. And through the fire, Utah State emerged holding a 5-1 record.
Although still unranked in the polls – but receiving 11 votes – Utah State has established itself well in quite a few statistical categories. Defensively, the Aggies rank 15th in blocks per set (2.98), No. 8 in total blocks (68.5) and 66th in opponent hitting percentage (16.0 percent), while the offense touts a top-100 ranking in team kills (92nd), team assists (93rd) and team attacks per set (98th). This balance of steady defense and relentless offense is what has made USU successful. Let's take a look at how the Aggies have gotten here:
@ Nebraska: L, 0-3
Although the first game of the season ended in a straight-sets loss, the Aggies gave fifth-ranked Nebraska all it could handle. Missing senior outside hitter Tatum Stall due to injury, Utah State landed a respectable 6.1 percent hit rate – well above Nebraska's No. 1 opponent hit rate average of 3.7 percent.
Utah State's undoing, ultimately, was the total error count: 24-12. That just can’t happen against such a talented team. In nearly every other category, USU maintained competitiveness throughout the evening, even surpassing Nebraska with an 11-6 advantage in blocks, but it was eventually beaten in straight sets (25-20; 25-17; 25-17).
This game against the Huskers, it bears mentioning, took place just days before Nebraska broke the record for attendance in the history of women’s sports.
Although not a part of this record, it is pretty special the Aggies played a small part in Nebraska's historic season.
vs. SMU: W, 3-1
Now with plans of joining the ACC, SMU may have gotten a bit carried away before its game against the Aggies. Without a positive statistic in any top 50 category, coach Samantha Erger delivered a strong quote before the game.
It was in fact, a great day for a “dub” and an even better day to be an Aggie as they handled the Mustangs in a 3-1 victory for their first win of the season. It was a tightly contested four-set match, with two contrasting styles of play, which saw the Mustangs claim the first set (25-21) and Utah State the final three (25-18; 25-21; 25-22).
Utah State distributed double-digit kills among Shelby Capllonch (13), Adna Mehmedovic (13) and Jill Schneggenburger (12) while SMU relied heavily upon Naya Shime, the team’s only player with double-digit kills (17). The Aggies also led the way in blocks (13 to 9), assists (50 to 42) and digs (69 to 57)
vs. Lipscomb: W, 3-1
It was more of the same here, as the Aggies finished out their time in Lincoln on the winning side (25-16; 19-25; 25-19; 25-22), to ring in the new school year. The Aggies finished with just two players with double-digit kills, Schneggenburger (14) and Capllonch (13), but held every Lipscomb player to eight or fewer, winning the category 51-35. USU was similarly dominant in blocks (12 to 9), assists (45 to 33) and digs (52 to 40).
Realistically, the tournament trip went about as well as you could have anticipated, and the Aggies were recognized for their excellent play.
As a dual threat, Kennedi Boyd is now tied for 44th place nationally in total blocks (28.0).
Despite their impressive performances in the tournament, there were a few Aggies that did not make the cut for the All-Tournament team – Schneggenburger and freshman Kambree Rodriguez were notably absent from tournament honors. The former was a menace on the front line, while the latter held a key role on the team as a defender.
vs. Utah: W, 3-0
With conference realignment, it’s likely Utah State's opportunities to face in-state rivals Utah and BYU in football and basketball will be limited for the foreseeable future. These in-state rivalry games are what make college athletics special, and they're especially meaningful for Aggie fans.
Like it or not, the Olympic sports may be the only opportunity to watch these rivals go head to head for the next decade, at least.
The last time Utah State took to the volleyball court against Utah and emerged victorious was back in 2010. This time, in straight sets (25-20; 25-22; 25-22), the Aggies broke that dry spell.
The sweep of the Utes in Club Estes was a dominant display from a team that was hungry to win this rivalry game. Utah, notably, is no slouch, either. The Utes came into the game tied for 38th in blocks per set, led by KJ Burgess (tied for 38th in the nation in blocks per set and 40th in hitting percentage) and Lauren Jardine (tied for 28th in kills per set and 25th in points per set). In other words, even with Stall back in the lineup, the Aggies had their work cut out for them.
With a sold-out crowd on hand for the home opener, the HURD delivered and the Aggies matched the energy of a rocking Club Estes.
“It was amazing. Club Estes is as loud as it gets in any volleyball arena and we’re so grateful for the people that came and supported us,” said Boyd after the game. “We worked really hard this summer and we don’t feel like we played our very best but it just shows how much room for growth we have and how much we’re capable of.“
With interest in volleyball growing around Cache Valley, this rivalry opener was the perfect way to kick off the home season.
“It's an unbelievable environment in here, and we're so excited for the energy and momentum that's been created,” said coach Rob Neilson. “Our fan base is coming back and I think there are new fans we won over tonight with just how fun it is in here."
Although unforced service errors kept the Utes close in the game at times, the Aggies were able to push past, earning the edge in kills (35 to 32), aces (4 to 1), blocks (13 to 7) and assists (33 to 31) to earn the sweep.
Weber State: W, 3-1
The Aggies would have plenty to cheer about as they lined up to play another in-state rival Weber State on the second night of a back-to-back in Club Estes. This would prove to be an even bigger challenge than the night before, as the Wildcats work so well as a unit, ranking 33rd in blocks per set (2.68) and just outside the top 50 in several other metrics. This team is really good.
Its shining stars are found on a superb front line – Saane Katoa is No. 3 in the nation in blocks per set (1.82), supported by the rock-solid duo of Makayla Sorensen and Kate Standifird.
Not only can Weber State's defense suffocate even the best teams, but that offense is no joke, led by well-rounded players like Ashley Gneiting, Dani Richins and Standifird. The Wildcats can attack and defend from so many different angles.
Against a stacked opponent, the Aggies started off playing with fire, committing a plethora of service errors and losing the first set to the Wildcats, 26-24.
“It felt like a grind, it wasn’t as smooth as we wanted, and we made a lot of errors but credit to that Weber State team. They’re a really well-coached team, really disciplined in a lot of ways,” said Nielson. “To be in this environment and to have our fans carry us through and to see our team compete like crazy to get the win it’s great.
"They blocked us 15 times in the first two sets and that’s like an entire two matches worth of blocks. Obviously, they’re a good blocking team and we just weren’t making good choices, so it just kind of grinding.”
It wasn’t until the third set of the night that the Aggies started to find their groove, eventually securing a 3-1 win (24-26; 26-24; 25-22; 25-19).
“I felt like we were able to make some adjustments during the break between sets two and three,” explained Neilson. ”It was just about that, we’ve got to play with better principles, take better swings in better spots and I thought our team rallied. I’m hoping that’s trending towards the right direction for us.”
Chief among Utah State's leaders against the Wildcats was Mehmedovic. She finished with a game-high 15 kills, and has emerged as a two-way threat for the Aggies.
“She’s amazing for us, and we think she’s going to be one of the best players in our conference. She’s certainly one of the biggest arms in our gym and provides a huge presence for us on the right side, not only with her hitting, but with what she does defensively. We love Adna, she’s awesome,” said Neilson.
Mehmedovic explained the challenge for the Aggies afterward.
“We knew that’s a good Weber State team and we knew they were going to challenge us defensively. We played our game, we took it to them and we made them hit some shots they weren’t super comfortable with. I think early on we were a little nervous, but we figured it out later and played our brand of volleyball. We’re working on our offensive flow, our setters are finding us and we’re working hard and they’re working hard so props to them.”
No. 37 LMU: W, 3-2
The final game of this nine-day stretch culminated in the most exciting game thus far, against then-No. 37 LMU, a blocking juggernaut that leads the nation on a per-set basis (3.5) and boasts two top 60 defenders in Kari Geissberger (No. 51 in blocks per set) and Jacquelyn Moore (No. 32).
“I have so much respect for that coaching staff at LMU and for that team,” said Neilson. “They’re talented, they’re physical, they play the game the right way and they’re tough. For them to come into this environment and play as well as they did, hats off to them.
"It was about making little adjustments and little strategies, what we’re going to defend here, and what we’re going to give up. We just ended up making enough plays to win. I'm really proud of our team”
Utah State came out the gates swinging, but the Lions responded each time, going back and forth in set wins, sending the match to a fifth set (which is first to 15 points) after Aggie wins in sets one (25-16) and three (25-20) and LMU wins in sets two (25-17) and four (25-18).
In that decisive set, the Aggies found themselves in a hole, trailing 9-5. With backs against the wall, the Aggies rallied for a 4-0 run to tie it back up, and emerged from a back-and-forth stretch holding a 14-13 advantage. With the game on the line and the ball in sophomore setter Leah Wilton-LaBoy’s hands, the Aggies got Club Estes rocking.
“It was very nerve-wracking in the beginning, but as soon as I saw it go over the net, I knew," said Wilton-LaBoy. "It was so cool hearing everyone behind me. Club Estes (was) going, and it really fueled me to get that serve."
The HURD will have to wait a bit before they can again support their Aggies, as Utah State is slated to travel for its second tournament of the year this weekend – this time trekking to College Station, Texas for a trio of matchups with Texas A&M (on SECN+, Thursday at 6: 30 p.m.), TCU (Friday at 1:30 p.m.) and Northern Iowa (Saturday at 10 a.m.).