SALT LAKE CITY — It may not get the hype that the football game gets, but the Utah-BYU volleyball rivalry is infused with just as much passion.
The two teams, both ranked in the Top 25 Coaches Poll, will clash Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.
Both No. 16 Utah and No. 14 BYU have just one loss each. The Utes dropped the second game of the season to No. 12 Kentucky, while the Cougars were upset by Baylor at a tournament last week.
The Utes entered the season with high hopes after earning their best preseason rankings from the other Pac-12 coaches — No. 4. Previously their best preseason ranking was No. 8, while their best finish is fifth.
“I’m happy that the conference is showing us respect,” said Utah coach Beth Launiere. “I think that respect is there. I think it’s deserved. Now, on the other side of that, we want to be in, at least, the top four at the end of the season.”
Launiere believes that respect comes from Utah’s senior leaders, as well as their new freshman class.
“Certainly, it’s respect for Adora (Anae), Tawnee (Luafalemana) and Carly (Trueman),” she said. “I think Bailey Choy, they know she’s a good setter. And certainly our incoming freshman class. We’re all out on the recruiting trail watching the same players. So they know we nailed our recruiting class this year.”
Among those new freshmen is Brighton standout Dani Barton.
“I definitely feel pumped,” she said of the preseason nod to the Utes. “It’s very motivating. To step up to the challenge, some of us freshmen are going to have to play this year. We’re going to have to fill some roles this year. It’s really, I think, motivating just to be able to work hard and not let down the team.”
Her brothers got their victory over BYU on Saturday with the football team, and now Barton hopes to help the Utah volleyball team earn a victory over the Cougars.
The Utes are led by senior outside hitter Anae, who led the conference with 4.7 kills and 5.2 points per set last season. Launiere said Anae has always been critical to Utah’s success, but her sophomore year taught her how to manage being the team’s go-to player.
“Her development has been understanding the confidence in herself,” she said. “Last year she had a breakout season, and a lot of that was understanding how to take a load on. This year it’s second nature to her. She’s a really good team player and teammate, and she’s very humble. But she also knows she’s going to get the ball in crunch times.” Barton said Anae leads through example, and she’s always willing to help her younger teammates with advice or insight.
“She leads by her actions,” Barton said. “She just goes on the court and gets it done, whatever needs to be done.”
BYU brings an experienced squad to the Huntsman Center, starting with setter Lyndie Haddock, a Timpview alum. Cosy Burnett, Veronica Jones-Perry, Danelle Stetler and Kennedy Redding give the Cougars plenty of offensive firepower, as well as tough net play.
Cougar head coach Heather Olmstead said the Cougars are looking to learn from their five-set loss to Baylor.
“Being up 2-0 and letting it slip is always going to be painful,” she said. “So we’ve got to look at what went wrong; I think it just came down to a couple of points here and there. We’ve just got to pay a little more attention to detail. Overall, I like the way we played.”
She said she’s been most impressed with the Cougars’ ability to keep fighting through any situation.
“They’re never going to give up,” she said. “We can get technically better. But they’re going to grind and play for each other, and I like that.”
She said the Cougars are eager to redeem themselves after the loss, and Thursday’s match isn’t as much about the rivalry as it is about getting back on a winning track.
“I don’t think it matters,” Olmstead said. “We’re just looking forward to the next opponent, and it just happens to be Utah. That’s great; they’re a great opponent. It’s no different than any other team.”
Utah ends non-conference play this week with BYU and then UVU on Friday, while BYU plays Utah, then Weber State, followed by UVU.