Being all left is all right for Drews, Koerber and No. 16 Utah

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Dani Drews-Kenzie Koerber
Dani Drews, left, and Kenzi Koerber

The two Utes are left-handed.

One of them, defying traditional volleyball logic, plays outside hitter.

And together they’re something else.

One, 6-foot Dani Drews, the outside, always looks like she just won the lottery or petted a puppy.

The other, 6-3 right-side Kenzie Koerber, has fashion-model looks and a steely stare.

And yet their coach, Beth Launiere, says of her two Utah juniors, “They both like to have fun.

“Dani’s the happy-go-lucky one. Dani always has a smile on her face and is a legitimately happy kid. 

“Kenzie is a goofball and just funny. They’re funny in different ways. Similar but different is really right on.”

They’re juniors who have done nothing but win since they arrived on the Salt Lake City campus. They hit well out of system — Drews is especially effective hitting out of the back row — and cause scouting nightmares for opponents.

As freshmen, they both played right side in a 6-2 offense for a Utah team that made it to the NCAA Tournament round of 16. Those Utes lost to Texas in five, 16-14 in the fifth.

“I was so happy when they came, because at the time they were both on the right side, they’re both lefties, and nobody could stop our lefty right sides that year,” Utah senior libero Brianna Doehrmann said. “That was the year we went to the sweet 16, so they’ve always been huge contributors to our team.”

And then Launiere and her staff decided to make a big change for 2018. They wanted to run a 5-1 and they knew both the lefties had to be on the court. 

“Dani’s this amazing athlete,” Launiere said “We put her on the left side and never looked back. Last year there were growing pains, but she figured it out and became a second-team All-American, which is pretty crazy.”

Last year Utah lost in the second at in-state rival BYU, which advanced to the national semifinals.

This year, Drews — who just might be the best lefty to ever play outside in NCAA Division I volleyball —  leads with 506 kills (4.60/set), which ranks fourth in the nation. She’s hitting .246, has a team-high 31 aces and is third in digs with 231 (2.10/set). She’s also got 54 blocks, eight solo.

“Dani puts the team on her back and carries us,” said senior middle Berkeley Oblad, who added that Drews “is a fireball and wants every set every time.”

Koerber has 323 kills (3.02/set), is hitting .273, has 24 aces and is third with 85 blocks, four solo.

“Kenzie is the energy,” Oblad said. “Kenzie’s got your cheers, Kenzie’s got your sassy looks. Kenzie works hard, she’s got shots for days, she swings hard, she’s a good blocker, she’s a great player.”

That’s not lost on them.

“There will be moments in a match,” Drews said, “where we’ll go to each other and say let’s just take this over. We know our role on the team is to score for us. It’s really cool and lucky for our teams to have two lefties.”

Dani Drews leads Utah on offense and is fourth in the nation in kills/Steve C. Wilson, University of Utah)

The former Dani Barton who married former Utah football player Christian Drews in the summer of 2018 — is not only from the Salt Lake suburb of Sandy, but her mom, Mikki (Kane) Barton, was a volleyball and basketball player for Utah. Her dad, Paul, played football and baseball at the U. And her two brothers are playing in the NFL — Jackson with the Colts and Cody with the Seahawks. Conversely, Koerber is the first elite athlete in her family.

Drews came to Utah volleyball camps and has known Launiere, who is in her 30th year at the helm, her whole life.

“I remember one time there being a volleyball dinner for the team at my house and playing dress-up with the players,” Drews recalled with a smile. “The program’s always been a part of my life.”

Dani Drews Kenzie Koerber-Utah volleyball
Dani Drews digs at the AVP Hermosa qualifier/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

But …  

“Originally when I was being recruited I was super set on going out of state,” Drews said. “I was looking more for beach volleyball. I really wanted to go to USC for beach and was really set on that. But I don’t know, I came on a visit,” and she laughed. “Two of my best friends were here at the U, and I don’t know, it felt really good and I felt really peaceful about my decision and it was really cool. Being around my family was really important and more important than I thought it was until I started thinking about leaving Utah and being away from them.”

Family, too, factored in for Koerber, but in a much different way.

Koerber, rather, is from from Chino Hills, California, and didn’t really have Utah on her radar. The skinny kid — “My high school coach literally called me BG, short for baby giraffe” — responded when Utah expressed interest and Koerber figured she’d make an unofficial visit while a junior in high school.

‘I have a ton of family here and didn’t really know them before coming to school here,” Koerber said. And I was like, ‘It would be cool to get to know my family.’ They all have kids and they didn’t know me. I came out the week of Thanksgiving with my family and it was a great visit. I loved the school and everything about it. When Beth offered me on the spot I had this feeling that I knew I should go here.”

But she didn’t accept right away.

“I went back to Provo where BYU is and my aunt lives. I went to dinner with my parents that night and we went to some random Mexican restaurant in the heart of Provo and the lady came up to serve the drinks — and it sounds like a cliché, but — all the drinks were regular Coca-Colas with the Coke logo on them. But mine had the Utah logo on it.”

NCAA women's volleyball 9/1/2019-Kenzie Koerber-Utah volleyball
Utah’s Kenzie Koerber was named MVP of the Utah Classic after wins over both Kentucky and Cal Poly/Steve C Wilson, Utah athletics

And Koerber, who wants to going into sports broadcasting, laughed.

“Everything felt like it fell in to place and so I committed later that week. And it was a great decision, that’s for sure.”

Certainly this year.

Utah (19-8 overall, 11-5 Pac-12) is No. 16 in both the AVCA Poll and the NCAA RPI. The top 16 teams get to be hosts for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, so clearly Utah has little margin for error. Utah, however is used to that: The Utes have played 11 five-set matches this season, and is 4-5 in them in the Pac-12.

The Utah team is an interesting mix. There’s Oblad, the 6-4 product of Henderson, Nevada, second on the team with 108 blocks, 12 solo, and third in kills with 270 while hitting .310. The other middle is 6-2 Phoebe Grace, a sophomore from Hawai’i who leads in blocks with 130, 13 solo, and has 89 kills.

The other outside is a work in progress and she’s progressing in a hurry. Zoe Weatherington, who simply hits a monster ball when she finds a set in system, is a 6-2 freshman from Mint Hill, North Carolina, who has 241 kills (2.46/set) and 37 blocks. 

The setter is 6-foot sophomore Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres, a product of Hawai’i who is grateful for playing with so many experienced hitters.

“They’ve helped me in more ways that I would have thought,” Ka’aha’aina-Torres said of Drews and Koerber. “They’re both great leaders and throughout the course of a game they help me dial in my sets, they tell me what they need and they’re so specific that it makes my job that much easier to get them the ball.”

Doehrmann said the most impressive thing about the lefties is their intangibles.

“Dani is probably one of the hardest workers I’ve met in my life. She has this grit in her that has an effect on everyone on the court around her. She motivates us to work hard every time she gets the court. She’s always giving her all,” Doerhmann said.

“Kenzie has this fire on the court and she’s really smart on the court, too.”

About that fire. Koerber really isn’t as mean as she looks in a match. 

“Yeah, she can get very intense,” Launiere said. “She brings a high level of energy and sometimes it can scare freshmen. We depend on her for that.”

Perhaps, but Koerber wants you to know “That’s not how I am outside of volleyball.”

She laughed.

“I just look mean even when I cheer,” she said. “I still want to bring that fire.”

They both said they and their team simply doesn’t do well when they act calm and collected.

However, Koerber — who really does get that are-you-a-model line — said joining the Mormon church nine months ago helped her relax off the court. 

“Before that I was always a very angry person,” she said, adding that she’s much more in control now. 

“But on the court I do get very intense, but that’s died down a bit.”

“She’s definitely found a balance,” Drews chimed in. “She’s changed so much but in a good way. She’s more positive but with still with that intensity.” 

Drews, who is Mormon, said getting married made her more mature. 

“Before I got married I would get upset very easily. I was super reactive,” Drews said. 

“I think I’ve grown as a person and a player. That’s been the biggest difference, being able to stay confident under pressure and not be reactive when things aren’t going my way. 

“I definitely think it has helped my game.”

Utah had early 2019 victories over then-No. 7 Kentucky and then-No. 23 Cal Poly. There was a tough stretch with three losses in a row and four of five, including to then-No. 6 Pittsburgh, a five-set loss in a rematch with Cal Poly, and a four-set home loss to BYU, which was 12th at the time.

Utah has been confounding at times, losing in the Pac-12 to Oregon early, but beating both Los Angeles teams both times they played. The Utes took Stanford to five in Palo Alto, losing 17-15 in the fifth.

Before losing at then-No. 13 Washington in five this past Sunday — 21-19 in the fifth — Utah had won five in a row in the league.

The Utes are home this week, playing host to No. 4 Stanford on Friday and then No. 24 Cal before finishing the Pac-12 season at Oregon State and Colorado the following week.

“When we play as a team and click as a team, we’re literally unstoppable,” Koerber said.

Few who have seen them would argue. But, like a lot teams, they can be up and down.

“We’re a very versatile team. We have a ton of offensive weapons and lots of options,” Drews said. “We’re a lot better than some people realize. I really, truly believe in us and I think we’re so good and I think the only people who can stop us is ourselves.”

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