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LOGAN — A successful season for Utah State women's volleyball came to a bitter end on Friday night at the Matthew Knight Arena.
In its first NCAA Tournament match since 2010, the Aggies were beat by six-seeded Arkansas, falling 3-0 (25-19, 25-14, 25-15) in the Round of 64.
Utah State came into the tournament with three-straight victories to win the Mountain West last week and entered the NCAA Tournament ranked 49th in the NCAA RPI. The Aggies liked their chances against the Razorbacks, who were coached by former BYU women's volleyball head coach Jason Watson, after they battled against them in a 3-2 loss last season.
But in Oregon on Friday, it was Woo Pig from the opening serve to the final kill.
"They put on a clinic, swinging high and hard and playing principal volleyball," Utah State head coach Rob Neilson said. "We gave Arkansas a little bit too much room to be comfortable in that match. They were certainly a tough opponent."
The Aggies' offense struggled to find a rhythm throughout the match and hit below its season average, while also struggling to sustain runs. The Mountain West champions were mistake-prone — they commit 17 total errors — and the Razorbacks made them pay. As a team, Utah State hit just .136%, while Arkansas hit .333%. The Aggies had just three aces and eight serving errors, while the Razorbacks had seven aces and just three serving errors.
All Mountain West outside hitter Tatum Stall led the team with eight kills but had seven errors and hit just .032%. Shelby Capllonch had eight kills and hit .273%.
"It's definitely a learning experience for sure," Stall said. "You know, the lights are brighter, the stage is bigger. That's the first time I've ever been in an NCAA Tournament. And, you know, me personally, I didn't hit as well as I wanted to."
"It's a lot of pressure against a team that just doesn't make mistakes; they're going to put pressure on you," Neilson said. "We didn't play as clean as we needed to, obviously."
The Aggies opened the match competitively and tied the score 9-9 in the first set. Then Arkansas went on a 10-3 run en route to a 6-point match win.
In the second set, after trailing 11-6, the Aggies went on a 6-2 run to make it to 13-12 after back-to-back attack errors from Arkansas. But the Razorbacks turned it on and went on a 12-2 run to win the second match. In the third set, Arkansas went on a 7-1 run to leap out to a 15-9 lead and clinched the set by 10 points. After just one hour and 19 minutes of play, the Aggies season was over.
"Volleyball's this unbelievable dance of people and all these moving parts and timing and rhythm. And so when you're not quite comfortable, it's really easy to kick off that rhythm," Neilson said. "I think that's where it was. And if you have a team like Arkansas that's going to punish you every time, it puts pressure on us to be even more perfect and it's even more crippling."
The loss caps off a successful season in the third year of Neilson's tenure. The Aggies finished 22-11, with wins over UCLA, Oregon State, UNLV and San Jose State. But reaching the NCAA Tournament was a reflection of the growth the program has seen in recent years.
After Utah State went 2-28 in 2019, Neilson was hired and the Aggies had a 5-10 record in a COVID-shortened season. In 2021, Utah State went 22-9 and clinched a share of the MW regular season title but lost in the conference tournament.
"It's hard to not be satisfied when you're in the NCAA tournament because that's every volleyball player's dream to say they've been here. But I know that we can go farther and especially with the people coming in next year and whoever we find, I know that we're going to set the standard."
"Unbelievably proud of our group and the season that we've had," Neilson said. "We put together a magical run in our conference tournament and there are great things ahead for Utah State volleyball."