After 28 years, Utah Valley, Atoa finally making an NCAA volleyball tourney appearance

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NCAA volleyball Utah Valley 4/11/2021-Sam Atoa-Utah Valley volleyball
Utah Valley coach Sam Atoa/UVU photo

By Courtney Huck for VolleyballMag.com

After 28 years at Utah Valley University, the last 22 as head coach and after 18 seasons in Division I, coach Sam Atoa is finally headed to the NCAA Tournament. 

Atoa started as an assistant at UVU in 1993 and took over as head coach in 1999. The Wolverines, 14-5 overall (12-4 in the Western Athletic Conference), completed quite a turnaround, capped by upsetting regular-season champion NM State in the WAC tournament final.

Utah Valley, 12-20 in 2019, swept NM State to get the league’s automatic bid. The two split their regular-season matches. Now the Wolverines will play Sun Belt-champion Texas State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday in Omaha, with the winner getting fifth-seeded Nebraska.

“As we go into (the NCAA tournament), this is what our team knows and how we’ve done things, so I don’t know that we changed a whole lot, except that there’s more time for us to focus on Texas State for over a week and that’s what we’re doing,” Atoa said. “And then we’re just trying to get refocused again after such a high last week.”

Atoa, was born and raised in Pesega, Samoa. From the UVU website:

He is highly honored and respected in his country, having received the Papalii or “Son of the King” title from the late Head of State of Samoa, His Highness Malietoa Tanumafili II. Atoa went to high school at the Church College of Western Samoa and graduated with high honors. After graduating from high school, Atoa went to BYU-Hawaii and played volleyball for two years. He earned his way through school by entertaining and dancing at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Atoa attributed clear goal-setting at the start of the season to the success his team has managed to find this year and claimed that the goals helped his team remained focused on the historic task in front of them. 

“We knew as we started the season that our initial goal was to win the WAC and go to the NCAA tournament,” Atoa said. “However we weren’t sure what path we were going to take, but whatever that path was going to be, if it deviated off course, we were going to be the best at bringing it back on course.” 

UVU, a school located between Salt Lake City and Provo, with a roster comprised primarily of players from Utah, is basically a young team with only two seniors.

Kazna Tanuvasa/UVU photo

The leader is 5-foot-11 outside Kazna Tanuvasa, a junior from nearby Lehi, Utah, who has 220 kills (3.61/set), 51 more than her next closest teammate. That’s Kristen Bell, a junior from Mapleton, Utah, who had 169 kills, while Tori Dorius, a junior from Heber City, Utah, has 165.

Kendra Nocke, a freshman from Temecula, California, leads with 90 blocks (she also has 128 kills) and Seren Jardine leads with 342 digs (4.89/set). The setting duties fall on Jaysa Funk Stratton, a senior from Alpine, Utah (461 assists, 20 aces), and Abbie Miller, a freshman from Lindon, Utah (280 assists, 22 aces).

“You have to give credit to the team for sure because there were a lot of distractions, disruptions, cancellations, and postponements,” Atoa said. “I mean, there was so much throughout the year, yet they were very resilient and they were willing to reset and be flexible,” Atoa said.

“We’re where we’re at because of how they managed things because you can absolutely just get stressed out of your mind.” 

Tanuvasa, named to the All-WAC first team for the second year, was born in New Zealand. Her father coaches the UVU rugby team.

“This last season has obviously been crazy,” Tanuvasa said. “We’ve gone through a lot of work and we’ve had our fair share of obstacles, but I think that builds a ton of character. And I think that shows when we play.”

Tanuvasa credited the Wolverines’ positive approach.  

“This team is just something special. I think that this last season has been super hard, but we’ve taken every obstacle head-on instead of having a negative attitude towards it at all,” Tanavusa said. “I just love this team and I wouldn’t want to go through a pandemic with anybody else. I contribute a lot of my personal success to them.” 

Although Tanuvasa is going to be playing on a larger stage for the first time, she said  she would be sticking to her normal pre-match ritual to put her in the right mindset for their match against Texas State. 

“We love to visualize before every game and visualization has been a huge key for us. Then our assistant coach always tells us to trust in your training,” Tanuvasa said. “So once it hits game time you don’t have to worry about little tiny details and stuff. Your body knows what to do and just let it flow.”

And, as a coach often says, Utah Valley will take things one match at a time.

“There are some similarities now. Last week, we expected to make it to the WAC championship, but we couldn’t look past Grand Canyon,” Atoa said. “If we would have, we would have lost one or two of those sets and that could have been very costly because it was very close.

“We were very grateful that we were the ones who were able to take care of things, and that’s our mindset as we go into this week and we’re familiarizing ourselves with Texas State. We have to focus on them first because it makes no sense to look forward to Nebraska if we’re not going to be our best for Texas State.”  

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Texas State (30-8) has the most wins of any program in Division I after winning the Sun Belt Conference tournament in November and then continuing on with a robust schedule this spring. And Sean Huiet, in his first year as head coach after 14 seasons as an assistant has a talented, experienced team.

The Bobcats come at you from a number of places with a potent offense that has seven players with 103 or more kills. The leader is junior outside Janell Fitzgerald, who has 462 kills (3.47/set), while hitting .311, and she’s third in blocks with 102, 19 solo. Senior middle Tyranee Scott had 303 kills and leads with 108 blocks, 21 solo. Junior middle Jillian Slaughter had 92 blocks, 13 solo. Junior Kayla Granado leads with 514 digs (.384/set).

Texas State also has one of the best setters in the country in junior Emily DeWalt, who not only has 1,427 assists (10.73/set), but 25 aces, she’s second on the team with 401 digs, and fourth in blocks with 61.

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