The best teams play their best in the biggest moments — which is why the 2021 UVU women’s volleyball team staked its claim for the title of best in program history.
The No. 3-seeded Wolverines came in as significant underdogs against No. 1 seed New Mexico State in the WAC Championship at Lockhart Arena in Orem on Saturday afternoon. UVU had only been to the title game twice (2016 and 2018) and had never won, while the Aggies — who had only lost once all season — were going for their third straight championship.
But this day belonged to the Wolverines.
In their own gym, UVU made all the big plays at key moments as the Wolverines shocked New Mexico State by getting the sweep, 3-0 (25-21, 25-22, 25-23), to win their first conference tournament championship and get their first trip to the NCAA tournament.
“I’m still wrapping my head around it,” UVU junior outside hitter Kazna Tanuvasa said on a teleconference after the match. “This group of girls is so different and this year has been so different. We’ve taken every challenge head on and I think that’s what made the difference today. It was everybody out there, a team effort all around.”
Wolverine head coach Sam Atoa was bursting with pride at seeing his 2020-21 squad celebrate such a historic achievement.
“I’m just overjoyed,” Atoa said. “It was an emotional time. We’ve worked hard for so many years. We went through the transitional period from junior college to Division I, and then just the time it took build the team. We had a couple of other opportunities in the WAC finals and we just weren’t the better team. To win today, I was just so elated. I knew that at some point hopefully before my career was over that we could be able to experience that together. There have definitely been some challenges along the way but those challenges have allowed us to be stronger and be more resilient, especially with this year. I’m just so proud of them for battling through some challenges and injuries to earn this win today.”
It was almost surreal when match point came in the third set with UVU having the slimmest of leads (24-23). The Wolverines got the ball up but then the set to Tanuvasa was right up against the net.
“Our coaches have done such a great job in preparing us,” Tanuvasa said. “With big-time moments like that, we call them our warrior moments. I just had to take a deep breath and trust in our training that we’ve been doing throughout the year. It happened to work out.”
She leapt and tipped the ball over the net at a slight angle, causing it to ricochet off the Aggie blocker and go out of bounds.
“I was nervous,” Atoa said. “I was standing right there and I could see that ball being set, that it was just pushed a little too far. Just an inch to the left on Kazna’s tip and that would have hit the antenna. Fortunately, she was able to play it with her left hand and save it. Then it just bounced off perfectly off of the blocker’s hand and back to the antenna. What a way to end. Anytime that you leave a door open for a good team, you never know what can happen. We didn’t want to give them any life and we were just fortunate to have it bounce our way.”
While not the prettiest kill of the day for Tanuvasa (she led the Wolverines with 13 kills), it was definitely the most significant.
“I took a second to realize like, wow, that just happened,” Tanuvasa said. “I think sometimes it’s about being smarter more than hitting the ball really hard. We call it toolbox practice and we’ve been practicing that over and over again.”
The Wolverines waited for a heartbeat to be sure of the call, then they exploded onto the court to celebrate.
“It’s having that hard work for a whole year finally pay off, that realization that everything that we do without anyone seeing what we’re doing pays off,” Tanuvasa said. “I’m just super grateful.”
In all three sets, UVU had to come up big in clutch moments.
The first set was tied at 20-20 before the Wolverines scored five of the last six points (including two kills from Tanuvasa), then things were tied at 22-22 in the second frame before UVU staved off a New Mexico State push to win.
“In those moments, I think it’s just trusting in our training and trusting each other,” Tanuvasa said. “I think sometimes it can get kind of individual which can cause some problems. But when we all look at each other and we’re like okay, next point, we got this next one, everyone has that trust with each other which makes it so much easier.”
Now the Wolverines get the chance to play in their first NCAA tournament, which will be held in Omaha, Nebraska, starting on April 14.
“I’m so excited,” Tanuvasa said. “I just I love this group of girls so much and I want to play with them as much as I possibly can. Our seniors, Seren Jardine and Jaysa Funk Stratton, have left such a legacy. I just want to savor every moment I can.”
Atoa said he looks forward to seeing his Wolverines face the next opportunity and see what they can accomplish.
“It’ll be a challenge because it will be the first time and a lot of times those that experience it for the first time just go flat,” Atoa said. “I hope that we can be able to just savor the moment, but then be confident in our ability to play.”