As much as they wanted to avoid it, it wasn’t surprising that the Utah Valley women’s volleyball players took a little big to get settled in.
After all, it was the first NCAA tournament match in program history, the biggest stage in the sport.
The Wolverine opponent, Texas State, wasn’t in the mood to give UVU time to find its rhythm.
The Bobcats jumped out early in the first two sets and built a big lead in their first-round contest against the Wolverines at the Chi Health Center Arena in Omaha, Nebraska, on Wednesday.
UVU showed the heart and fight it had all year and pushed Texas State to the end, but eventually ran out of time as the Bobcats got the 3-1 win (25-21, 25-16, 20-25, 25-22).
“You always want to keep going and unfortunately sometimes things come to an end,” Wolverine head coach Sam Atoa said on a teleconference after the match. “We felt that it was in our hands for us to advance and we fell short and made a few too many errors, dug ourselves into too deep of a hole.”
UVU may have gotten knocked down early but Atoa had every reason to be proud of how the Wolverines rallied after dropping the first two sets.
“We’ve been down before against a pretty good team and knew that we could kind of make that comeback,” Atoa said. “They knew they were playing a little tight, they were playing just not themselves and kind of letting certain situations kind of affect them a little bit. After the second set, some of the things that they said to each other and we talked about is that we’ve been there. We definitely had different areas of the game where we were not connecting but once that happened, then there was going to be some good things going.”
UVU stood tall in the third, racing out to a 6-2 lead and never allowing Texas State to catch back up as the Wolverines won the set, 25-20.
At that point it appeared that UVU had regained the momentum and might put together the big rally — only to have the Bobcats seize it right back by scoring the first six points of the fourth frame.
“I didn’t really expect what happened in the fourth set and I was really surprised,” Atoa said. “We were doing some really good things, starting to hit better and defend better. Then coming out in that fourth set and being down 6-0, it was not the way that I expected to have things happen.”
The Wolverines trailed 19-11 but came roaring back with a 10-3 run to narrow the deficit to a single point. A couple of mishits and a Texas State block, however, gave the Bobcats the win and ended UVU’s season.
“I was really proud of how hard they fought and how they kept going,” Atoa said. “Any time that the season comes to an end, there’s some level of disappointment but I think we, as a team, are focused on seeing how we can prepare for next season and make this become an every-year opportunity. It was an awesome experience because of these ladies and it was a proud moment, as a coach, to have a program with kids that will just battle for you. I’m elated and thrilled that I get to be their coach.”
Sophomore Tori Dorius led the Wolverines with 14 kills and hit .355 while adding five blocks, with junior Kazna Tanuvasa tallying 11 kills. Freshman Kendra Nock and sophomore Natalia Andrus had six blocks each, while freshman Bryton Bishop tied a career-high with four service aces.
Senior Seren Jardine finished with 14 digs, which meant she ended her career tied for fourth in WAC history with 1,864 career digs. Senior Jaysa Funk Stratton led UVU with 19 assists to go along with six digs.
While the outcome wasn’t what they wanted, Atoa said the NCAA experience — even with the hassles and challenges — was “awesome.”
“It’s been awesome because of these young ladies,” Atoa said. “We are going to have great experiences, not so much defined because of whether we win or lose. It’s because of the people and the coaching staff, and the players that I have. They really make up what this season has been and what this NCAA experience has been.”
Atoa lauded the contributions of the two seniors but said he is excited to see what the rest of the team will be able to accomplish as they build off the heights they reached in 2020-21.
“We will definitely will miss Jaysa (Funk Stratton) and Seren (Jardine) and the value and the stability that they’ve added,” Atoa said. “But the future is bright at UVU with the talent that we have and what we’re going to continue to bring in. I think with this young group, there is the foundation that we built and they’re just going to keep getting better. It’s just limitless on what their potential is.”