Fans got their first glimpse at the 2019 Aggie volleyball team Tuesday night.
The Utah State squad hosted the annual Blue & White Scrimmage at the Wayne Estes Center. Fourteen players dressed for the event. The roster has 16 as two sat out.
“Mike Wilton, our volunteer assistant coach, said this: ‘things always change when the ammo is live,” said Aggie head coach Grayson DuBose, who prepares for his 14th year at the helm. “It’s fun to be out there in front of some people and get a different feel from what we’ve done in practice. We saw some good stuff tonight.”
Indeed, there were some nice plays throughout the 80 minutes of action, but the scoring was pretty one-sided. Blue won all three sets that were played, topping White 25-21, 25-10, 25-17.
“It’s fun to put on a jersey and see how you’re going to respond when things really hit the fan,” DuBose said. “It’s good for us and is a nice opportunity. I’m always appreciative that people come spend their evening with us. We’re grateful that they’re able to come out and support us.”
Several players rotated between the Blue and White teams Tuesday night. USU’s three setters saw time on both sides of the court, as did sophomore middle blocker Corinne Larsen.
Freshman outside hitter Hailey Cuff led the attack, hitting .421 with 11 kills. Sophomore outside hitter Whitney Solosabal finished with a team-high 15 kills. The two teams combined for seven service aces, including three from Cuff.
Junior right side hitter Bailey Downing posted nine block assists in the match and had eight kills. Freshman outside hitter Madi Brunatti had nine kills.
In the digs department, senior defensive specialist Ally Packard had 21 digs, while freshman defensive specialist Grace DuBay had 16.
There are four starters and seven letterwinners returning from last year’s team that went 5-24 overall and 3-15 in the Mountain West. However, there are plenty of new faces getting used to being in the USU program.
“Yeah, we have a few (new players),” DuBose said. “The wonderful thing about the last seven or eight years is that our teams have really enjoyed being around each other. This team is no different. They really like playing together and being around each other. They really have wrapped their arms around the new players.”
The two biggest holes that need to be filled from the 2018 team is at setter and libero. USU graduated two seniors who had been starters for multiple years and left with their names in the record books.
“Trying to find a setter is hard,” DuBose said. “I think trying to find a libero is hard. Those are two positions we had pretty solidified for the last couple of years. We are looking to see who is going to lead us and help us out. Maybe it’s fluid. It is right now.”
Senior transfer Heidi Carpenter, junior Elle Nesbitt and freshman Kalena Vaivai are in the running to be the Aggies’ setter in 2019.
One area the head coach is excited about is his middle blockers.
“I really like what our middles are doing,” DuBose said. “We have Bailey (Downing), Kelee (Call) and Corinne (Larsen) who have been doing a real nice job in practice. We added another middle from Snow College who was sick tonight (Autumn Stafford). Bailey is kind of this Swiss army knife, who can go in a couple of different spots. I like that about her. Corinne had a nice experience in Europe, where she got some nice playing time (with the Mountain West all-star traveling team).”
Solosabal, Cluff and libero Madi Olson-Shepherd drew praise for their efforts in practice.
“I think we have some nice pieces in place,” DuBose said. “We will have to see how it all shakes out. I like this team’s personality a lot.”
But who will be the leader? That question is still unanswered.
“Right now, it’s hard for me to tell,” DuBose said. “We are still trying to find that just a little bit. I think all of them lead by example. We need to find someone who is going to be a little more vocal. We need a vocal leader. That would be nice.”
Downing could end up filling that leadership role, along with junior outside hitter Gabbi Shumway, who did not play Tuesday night.
“Bailey can step into that role nicely,” DuBose said. “Gabbie (Shumway) can too. We are being cautious with her right now because of (her) hamstring.”
The Aggies begin the 2019 campaign next week when they host the Utah State Invitational at the Estes Center on Aug. 30-31. Eastern Michigan, Southern Utah and Xavier will be in town for the two-day event where all four teams play each other. Is USU ready to get going for real?
“It will be nice to open at home, first week of school,” DuBose said. “I hope to get some good support going. It will be cool because I’ve never played Xavier or Eastern Michigan. I was glad they wanted to come play us.”
The Aggies will be in action at noon and 7 p.m. on Aug. 30, and will wrap up the weekend on Aug. 31, at 2 p.m.
USU was picked to finish near the bottom of the Mountain West, but the Aggies would like to surprise some people. The top of the league will be tough again, but there is always room for movement.
“Colorado State is going to be real good,” DuBose said. “Boise State and Wyoming are going to be good. Those three are the top in the conference right now.”
Not only are there many new faces playing, but DuBose’s staff has two new members. Joining the head coach and veteran assistant coach Taubi (Neves) Palmer are assistant coach Craig Choate and volunteer assistant Mike Wilton.
“Craig (Choate) was here a couple of years ago in 2013,” DuBose said. “He is fantastic to have in the gym. We’ve known each other 20-plus years. It’s been good to have him around and (he’s a) real nice voice to have in the gym. And then to have Mike Wilton, here is a guy that has been there, done that for a lot of years. It’s been fun for me to not be the oldest guy on the staff. That’s refreshing.”