Boise State 9-1 after upset of Utah despite piecing lineup together along the way

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Alyssa Wissinger attacks against Utah/Tyler McFarland, Boise State

Yes, it was an upset, unranked Boise State knocking off Utah, which just that day had jumped from 20th in the AVCA poll to No. 10.

But, no, Boise State wasn’t shocked by its success.

The Broncos, who are 9-1 and Thursday night play host to Santa Clara, are pretty tough, especially when you hear how they got to this point. 

“We’ve been getting by with less than our best out there up to this point,” 13th-year Boise coach Shawn Garus said. “Our record, it kind of makes me chuckle. We’re 9-1 right now but we’re not even close to playing our best lineup yet.”

We can start with that Utah match.

Two days earlier the Utes shocked Nebraska, falling behind 0-2 to the then-No. 3 Huskers on their home court before rallying for an 18-25, 24-26, 27-25, 25-22, 15-13 victory that stunned and silenced the crowd of 8,362 at the Devaney Center.

Then it was on to Boise, Idaho, for a rare Monday match that the two programs played early in the afternoon so Utah could catch a flight later that night back to Salt Lake City.

Shawn Garus

“We both had an open date, we’re not that far from each other, Beth (Utah coach Launiere) knows that year in and year out we’re pretty much winning 20 games, so it’s a pretty good RPI game for her,” Garus said. “And she’s willing to come here.”

Garus, admittedly, would play any time if a Pac-12 team comes to his place. The end result was a 25-18, 16-25, 25-20, 25-21 victory for Boise State, the biggest upset in program history. 

“I thought it was a pretty good matchup for us,” Garus said. “When we play teams with physical attackers it suits us well. We are giant. And we’re not like giant for a mid-major, we’re a giant volleyball team. Our pins are all 6-3, 6-4, so when you’re playing teams that want to bang balls, that suits us pretty well. The teams that make us uncomfortable usually like to throw it around, hit shots, are hyper fast, and make the big kids a little uncomfortable. We also serve pretty well.”

Lauren Ohlinger hits against Utah/Tyler McFarland, Boise State

Lauren Ohlinger, 6-foot-3, led with 16 kills, hit .353, and had three assists, an ace, a block, and nine digs. Makayla Hansen, 6-3, had 14 kills, six blocks, and six digs. Alyssa Wissinger, 6-2, had 10 kills, hit .467 and had an assist and four blocks, one solo. Dani Boss had four kills, 38 assists, and 12 digs, and her team hit .280. 

Previously unbeaten Utah (7-1) hit .211. Dani Drews led with 20 kills, but she hit .161. Madelyn Robinson and Zoe Weatherington had 10 kills each. 

Utah was flat, no doubt, but Boise State was hardly in midseason form, which bodes well for the Broncos. 

Go back to mid August.

“We had unbelievable amounts of injuries and we were a bad volleyball team heading into our first matches,” Garus confessed. “We have lots of individual talent, but we were so shorthanded. We played the first weekend without a setter.”

Indeed, as Boise opened the NCAA season at home by beating Dixie State in four and Long Beach State in five before losing in four to Montana State, the Broncos were without starter Boss and reserve Ashley Hayden.

Boss had taken a shot to the face in practice and sustained a concussion. And then two days before the first matches, Hayden got in a car accident and sustained a concussion. So Garus looked to senior middle Jessica Donahue, who had some setting experience in high school, but she was still recovering from ankle surgery. 

“We had nobody and it came down to which kid is willing to go out there and maybe embarrass themselves and try to set a high ball to our outsides,” Garus said. 

The winner was 6-foot-4 sophomore outside Chey Jones, an unlikely setting candidate who had been out with a bad shoulder.

“She hadn’t been training a lot on hitting. I sat her down and I said, ‘I think you’re the answer for our setting this weekend.’ And she was like, ‘You’re joking.’ ‘No, seriously, I think you can do it. You’re a good volleyball player.’

“She was not in the lineup in another spot.”

So Garus asked Jones to “just set high balls to the outside.”

So in that victory over Dixie State, Jones, a product of Maple Valley, Washington, not only had 35 assists, but also four kills in eight errorless tries, two blocks, and eight digs. Then against Long Beach, a match Boise won in five after being down 0-2, Jones had three kills in nine errorless attempts, 28 more assists, a block and six digs.

“So I’m driving home after the first two matches of the season just laughing. You’ve got to be kidding me, we just went 2-0 with no setter,” Garus said. 

As both matches unfolded, Montana State saw what what was happening.

“They watched us set every ball outside and did a good job tactically,” Garus said. Montana State won in four, but Jones had five more kills, hit .364, had 26 assists, two blocks, and three digs.

By the next weekend, when Boise State went to UC Irvine and beat Southern Utah, UCI, and George Mason, Boss, the all-Mountain West setter, was back. The 5-9 senior from Palm Desert, California, still was the only setter on the team. Hayden, a sophomore from Phoenix, just got back on the floor, so Boise hasn’t been able to properly practice six on six. 

The next weekend, the Broncos went to Sacramento State and beat Pacific, CSUN, and Sacramento State, having won six in a row heading into the Utah match.

So by the time Utah came to town, nearly everyone was back in some form or fashion, including Donahue, the 6-3 senior from Roseville, California, who had three kills in as many attempts and three blocks against Utah. The 2018 Mountain West freshman of the year led the conference in blocks the past two seasons. 

Through those first 10 matches, Ohlinger, a junior from Phoenix who was the Mountain West freshman of the year in 2018 and all-MW last spring, leads with 128 kills (3.76/set),  a team-high 19 aces, and is picking up 2.79 digs/set. 

Makayla Hansen tries to get the shot past Utah’s Madelyn Robinson/Tyler McFarland, Boise State

Hansen, a BYU transfer from Burley, Idaho, has 90 kills. Kayly Pau, a 6-4 sophomore from Lodi, California, has 50 kills. Wissinger, a junior from Tempe, Arizona, has 49 kills and leads with 50 blocks. Boss has 44 kills, and is averaging 11.10 assists/set and 3.1 digs/set. Alli O’Harra, a 6-3 graduate transfer from Pepperdine who is from Boise, has 40 blocks, and Hansen has 37.

Jolei Akima, a sophmore libero from Kahalu’u, Hawai’i, leads with 126 digs. 

And that doesn’t include freshman Paige Bartsch, a 6-3 middle from Helena, Montana, who not only is the teammate who gave Boss the facial, but also rolled her ankle the second week of practice. Bartsch, no relation to former Illinois star and USA Olympic gold-medalist Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, is “an absolute diamond in the rough and is going to be fantastic for us,” Garus declared.

Last year’s libero, junior Allison Casillas, was also out with an injury, but the product of Fontana, California, has finally returned.

It all adds up to a pretty big and strong Boise State squad. Two years ago, Boise finished 18-12, 10-8 in the Mountain West. Last spring, the Broncos were 10-5, which included a five-set loss and four-set defeat on back-to-back days to eventual Mountain West winner UNLV.

A tough weekend looms back in Bronco Gym. Boise State plays Santa Clara first, and the other Broncos may be 3-5, but they are coming off a weekend in which they beat both South Carolina and Clemson in four and lost to unbeaten Auburn in five.

Then Boise State plays Oregon State, a struggling Pac-12 team, on Saturday, before starting Mountain West play at Colorado State next Thursday and at Wyoming two days later.

Boise last won the Mountain West in 2016.

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