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UVU volleyball savoring unique NCAA experience, preparing to face Texas State

By Jared Lloyd daily Herald - | Apr 14, 2021
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The UVU volleyball team huddles up during practice on Tuesday, April 13, 2020, as it prepares for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which will take place Wednesday at the Chi Health Center Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.

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The UVU volleyball team poses for a photo on Monday, April 12, 2020, as it prepares for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which will take place Wednesday at the Chi Health Center Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.

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UVU head coach Sam Atoa talks to his team during practice on Tuesday, April 13, 2020, as it prepares for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which will take place Wednesday at the Chi Health Center Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.

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The UVU volleyball poses for a photo with their NCAA credentials on Monday, April 12, 2020, as it prepares for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which will take place Wednesday at the Chi Health Center Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.

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The UVU volleyball team runs a drill during practice on Tuesday, April 13, 2020, as it prepares for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which will take place Wednesday at the Chi Health Center Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.

This may be the first trip to the NCAA tournament for UVU head volleyball coach Sam Atoa but he knows how the system usually works.

In a normal year, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see his Wolverines — winners of the 2020 Western Athletic Conference tournament — be slotted to play on the road in a regional opening-round match against either No. 14-ranked BYU or No. 10-ranked Utah.

But, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s not the case this year.

Instead UVU has joined the other 47 teams that made the NCAA tournament field in Omaha, Nebraska, and will play in a first-round game against Texas State, winners of the Sun Belt Conference on Wednesday (1:30 p.m. MT, ESPN3).

“We’re just pretty excited that we just are continuing to play with a team that we feel like we can be competitive against,” Atoa said in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s not a Top 10 or Top 15 team initially right out of the first round.”

That said, he emphasized that he has plenty of respect for the Bobcats and the challenges they present.

“There are some similarities to Texas State with some of our opponents that we just got done playing that are in our conference,” Atoa said. “They have a really good right side player that I think is comparable to some of the right sides and middles we have seen. They have a really nice setter and they have a couple other positions that do a nice job in the middle and on the outside. We’re trying to see what their tendencies are and I feel like that there are definitely some areas of weakness that we want to be able to exploit. But they have some very talented kids.”

The Wolverines arrived in Nebraska on Sunday and faced the same procedural challenges that many tournament teams have faced during the pandemic.

“It’s kind of tough because there are some things that you’re allowed to do and some things you’re not,” Atoa said. “We’re not allowed to go practice anywhere off site. We’re kind of somewhat limited but it’s kind of nice that we are actually not having to stay confined. We’ve not been able to practice and we’re not able to go over to the convention center until you are tested.”

He said both the players and coaches have kind of looked at it philosophically.

“With all of those things, it’s challenging — but at the same time this whole year has been challenging,” Atoa said. “You just say, if we can do it, great. We’ll go if we can. If not, no big deal and we’ll just adjust. We just need to control what we can control ourselves and just enjoy the experience. I feel that teams that have been the best in being able to manage things throughout the season have been the best in their conferences to get here.”

As he has watched his athletes prepare for this historic step, he has enjoyed seeing the resiliency of his squad and how the players handle adversity.

“They have been so enjoyable to spend time with,” Atoa said. “It doesn’t really matter what the schedule is. They just make it in their favor, and they just enjoy the moment. We are where we’re at because of their willingness to be flexible, their willingness to be selfless and just kind of go with the flow. Then when we need to get busy, they do it.”

He lauded how the Wolverines have been willing to do whatever was necessary to be at their best.

“This is a very unique group of kids who have been very unselfish, who want what’s best for the team,” Atoa said. “I can honestly say that I have not had to worry about one kid being selfish. They absolutely have made it so much easier for me, so that we can kind of focus on the important things.”

Now that focus is on facing Texas State and trying to get UVU’s first NCAA tournament volleyball win.

“We are making some certain adjustments that are necessary to play Texas State, but mostly we are being mindful of the basic principles and foundations that we’ve kind of learned throughout the year,” Atoa said. “It’s about just believing in each other and in our abilities to be able to perform mentally. I think it’s not getting too high or too low in our emotions is important, making sure that we are clear and seeing things, and being able to recognize situations at the time that will help us. Those are some of the focuses we’ve had all year and I think that’s something that we’re going to need to continue to do against this good Texas State team.”

UVU will face the Bobcats on Wednesday with the winner advancing to face No. 5-seed Nebraska on Thursday (1:30 p.m. MT, ESPN3).

All matches are taking place at the Chi Health Center Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.

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