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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah volleyball program is off to another great start this season and is currently ranked No. 17 in the country behind an 11-4 overall record.
With notable victories against multiple top 10 teams, the Utes are continuing to build off an impressive 2020 campaign where they finished in the Sweet 16. With much of that roster that returned, including Pac-12 Player of the Year Dani Drews and standout senior Madelyn Robinson, Utah is looking to go deeper into the tournament this year.
Drews, who was formerly known as Dani Barton before marrying former Utes football player Christian Drews, comes from a rich history of Utes athletes. Not only were both her parents impressive athletes, but her brothers Cody and Jackson both played for the football team and are on current NFL rosters.
And despite that, Drews continues to forge her own path and has developed into a star athlete on the court.
"When I pictured the future, I just saw myself at the U and couldn't imagine being anywhere else," Drews said. "It's definitely helped me develop into a more skilled, well-rounded player and person."
Even after playing four full years for Utah, Drews decided to pick up an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 and return for one last season with the program.
"I think that college athletics is such a short and small amount of time in comparison to the rest of your life," she said. "I felt that it was a really awesome opportunity that a lot of athletes would've killed to go get one more season, so it was an opportunity that I had to take."
As for Robinson, her path to the Utah has been much different. She originally spent two seasons at BYU before transferring to Utah. She played a major role for the Cougars and helped the team to a combined 57-7 record, but she decided to explore a new opportunity with the Utes.
"(BYU) was a really good experience — loved it, loved the girls and I learned a lot — but I decided to transfer for personal reasons and I am really glad I got picked up by Utah, because getting to play in the Pac is super fun," Robinson said.
As the two upperclassmen continue to lead the way for Utah this season, they both reflected on their experience last year — not only enduring COVID-19 but their appearance in the tournament and premature exit.
"Last year, there were just so many unknowns and we were having to adapt day-by-day, week-by-week," Drews said. "Are we able to practice today or are there new rules or guidelines coming out? So it really tested our ability to adapt and be willing to change things on the fly.
"It kind of just fizzled out, which is too bad because we had a lot of talent and the personnel to do some pretty cool stuff," she added. "It just didn't pan out that way. But I think it's kind of been a good thing to just motivate us, to work harder, and it's a good reminder that we aren't good enough yet, so we need to keep working to get better."
"It was pretty sad," Robinson said. "We had worked pretty hard to get to that point. We had a pretty good seeding and got beat by Pittsburgh; but Pittsburgh was awesome, they played really well. Now we've just got to get back to work and we can use that opportunity to get better."
To no surprise, the Utes have done exactly that and have strung together an impressive 11-4 record with some notable upsets against No. 3 Nebraska and No.6 Washington in dramatic fashion on the road.
"Our win at Nebraska was cool because it's just such a historic environment in regards to volleyball, so to be able to play in that setting, to go in, take care of business and shock a lot of people — even though I 100% believed that we were going on that trip to get a win," Drews said. "it was cool for us to be able to pull that off.
"And then our win at Washington, they're such a good and competitive team that it took really good volleyball by us in order to beat them. I was really proud of how everyone contributed in that game; it was such a team win."
Individually, Drews and Robinson have played a critical part in those wins and every match throughout the season. Through 15 matches, Drews has recorded a team-high 257 kills, 13 assists, 138 digs and 32 blocks. Robinson has posted a second-best 168 kills, eight assists, 119 digs and 28 blocks.
Now, with more than half the season still in front of them, Utah has another opportunity to do something special. Even though they'll have to effectively navigate the gauntlet of the Pac-12, with all remaining matches in conference, both Drews and Robinson believe the team can achieve new heights and exceed what they were able to do last year
"I think if we are focused, we could be really good," Robinson said. "There've been some really, really great moments and we've just got to continue working on being more consistent."
"I think it will take a lot of work, obviously, but if we keep working like we are and keep continuing to develop and get better as the season progresses, I think there's really good things in store for us," Drews added. "Why not go further than last year? For me personally, I have never made it past the Sweet 16, and I think we have the talent that we can do that."
With an onslaught of Pac-12 teams anxious to knock the Utes from their standing, Utah will need to be at the top of their game every night. If the Utes can emerge from the conference as the top team without too many losses, they'll more than likely receive another great seeding and have a chance to redeem a premature tournament exit last year and have a real shot at a national title.