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There was never a doubt.

Sure, there were a few hiccups and nerves got the better of the Aggies on occasion, but Utah State was determined to finish off an amazing season with a title. The Aggie volleyball team did just that Saturday afternoon in the Estes Center after honoring its seniors.

Utah State outlasted Wyoming in a five-set Mountain West Conference thriller, 24-26, 25-20, 22-25, 25-22, 15-8. The team was presented a championship trophy from USU Athletics Director John Hartwell with the Kool & The Gang song “Celebrate Good Times” blaring in the Estes Center.

“This is exactly how we wanted Senior Day to turn out,” Aggie senior Corinne Larsen said. “I’m so, so grateful for how it went. ... We were a little bit jumbled, it wasn’t our cleanest match. We played what we call Aggie ball, where we grind through the ugly and we always come through. Nerves aside, we battled.”

“Yeah, never a doubt,” USU head coach Rob Neilson said. “That Wyoming team was playing so tough with four seniors. We played with a lot of nervous energy. We were a little slow and maybe thinking a little too much about the big picture.”

With the win, the Aggies (22-8, 14-4 MW) finished tied atop the regular season standings with Colorado State (18-9, 14-4). The Rams won at Boise State on Saturday in four, 25-15, 26-24, 18-25, 25-18.

“I’m so proud of our group for perservering,” Neilson said. “They have done that all year long. … Winning a championship is great, but the character this team showed to battle through emotions, that’s going to teach us lessons for a long time going forward.”

Heading to the fifth set, the Aggie faithful were credited by the head coach for helping lift the spirits of the team against a feisty Wyoming (16-14, 8-10) squad.

“The crowd getting into it was amazing,” Neilson said. “The crowd got into it at about 18 points in the fourth set and I felt that freed us up. … I told the team we are our best when our backs are against the wall. That’s what the fourth and fifth set were.”

USU never trailed in the fifth set. The score was tied four times, the last at 5-5. Kills by Tatum Stall and Kylee Stokes and an ace by Kalena Vaivai paced the hosts in the early going.

A kill by Katie Langford sparked a deciding 7-1 surge. With Hailey Cuff serving, the Aggies built some breathing room. Cuff served up two aces, and Stall had a tip kill.

After the Cowgirl point, USU reeled off three straight points on kills by Larsen and Stall, then a block by Inka Mehtola and Langford to give the hosts a 12-6 lead. Wyoming tried to make it interesting with back-to-back points to get within four.

The Aggies weren’t about to let the set, match or championship get away. A net violation on the Cowgirls inched USU closer. Mentola and Stokes teamed up for a block to bring up match point. A hitting error on Wyoming ended the fifth, and the Aggies celebrated.

“We always say we thrive in fifth sets,” Larsen said. “Whoever comes out harder is going to win, and we came out harder, and we won.”

On Monday, Larsen was named the MW Defensive Player of the Week. It was the first time in her career she has been honored by the league. Langford also picked up an award, the MW Freshman of the Week.

Stall led USU with a match-best 19 kills, hit .314 and came up with 12 digs, a solo block and a block assist.

“She (Stall) texted me after the Colorado State and was feeling a little bad that she didn’t have that many kills,” Neilson said of Stall. “We talked about all of the little things she did in the Colorado State match to help us win. She had a chip on her shoulder and wanted to go kill some balls (today). She carried a big load for us.”

Stokes had 13 kills. Larsen finished with 10 kills, four aces and four block assists. Kristy Frank and Langford were close to double figures in kills as they finished with nine and eight, respectively. USU hit .250 as a team.

Four Aggies reached double digits in kills. Joining Stall were Abby Peterson (19), Vaivai (13) and Frank (11).

“This is the last time on this court for me,” Larsen said. “I wanted to go all out.”

It was the final home match for Larsen and Frank, the lone two seniors on the team.

“They are so great,” Neilson said of Larsen and Frank. “They have learned so much and know how to prepare for matches. I’m so proud of them for how much they have improved. They have contributed enormously to what we have accomplished and what we are hoping to accomplish.”

Wyoming was led by KC McMahon with 18 kills as she hit .485. Hailey Zuroske had a match-best 22 digs. The Cowgirls hit .241 as a team.

Coming off a monumental win over Colorado State in four sets on Thursday, the Aggies had some moments of “playing not to lose” on Saturday. Leading late in the opening set, USU could not hold on in a wild set that saw 13 ties and six lead changes.

“We exerted a lot on Thursday,” Larsen said. “I think we took too deep of a breath and relaxed a little bit. They (Cowgirls) obviously came to play, so let’s battle. We had to regroup.”

The Aggies began the second set by jumping out to a 7-2 lead as Stokes had a couple of kills. After a 4-0 run by the Cowgirls, USU went on another 7-2 surge to build a 14-8 lead. Wyoming would rally to within a point before the Aggies evened up the match as they never trailed. Larsen had a big kill and then served up a set-point ace. The ball hit the net and somehow found its way over, dropping before a Cowgirl could get under it.

“I said, ‘this is going to be an ace,’” Larsen said. “Then it went into the net and I was ‘uh oh.’ Then it went over and I said ‘great.’ Mentally, I said it was going to be an ace.”

The third set once again featured 13 ties and six lead changes. The Cowgirls finished it off with a 4-0 run.

With their backs to the wall, the Aggies used a 5-1 run to build an early 8-4 lead. They would lead the rest of the set, but Wyoming stayed close and was within 23-22 when USU finished it off to force a fifth set. Stall and Stokes had kills to end the fourth.

With the crowd urging them on, the Aggies finished strong in the fifth.

“Had you come to me three years ago and said you are going to be Mountain West champs your senior year, I would have laughed,” Larsen said. “What we have gone through and done as a team is unbelievable. I would have never guessed, but as this team started playing and working, I had no doubt in my mind.”

Now it’s off to the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas.

“We are pumped and ready to go get another trophy,” Larsen said.

The top six teams qualified with the top two getting byes. The Aggies and Rams will be waiting in the semifinals on Thanksgiving for whoever wins on Wednesday. The championship will be on Friday.

“We are grateful for the chance to go play for a championship,” Neilson said. “We are chomping at the bit to go. … That’s been the goal for this group, to go win a tournament championship. We have our eyes set on it. We are peaking at the right time.”

Shawn Harrison is the sports editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at or 435-792-7233.

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