A tight match turned decisively one-sided at the end.
Which was just fine with the Utah State volleyball team. After dropping two of the first three sets, the Aggies forced a fifth against visiting Denver and then dominated.
USU remained atop the Western Athletic Conference standings with a 25-23, 21-25, 24-26, 25-21, 15-7 victory over the Pioneers on Saturday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in front of 708 fans.
“It was a grind; those guys punched us in the mouth a little bit,” said Aggie opposite side hitter Shay Sorensen, who had 12 kills, 15 digs and two aces in the match. “We responded toward the end, which was good and something we needed to do. It was good to come out with the win.”
With the match tied up at two sets apiece, Denver (8-9, 2-5 WAC) was hanging tough with USU (12-5, 6-1). The Aggies quickly took control in the deciding fifth, however.
Candace Richins slammed home a kill, and Kassi Hargrove served up an ace to get things going for USU. Hargrove had a career-high three aces for the match as the Aggies had a season-high nine as a team.
Several hitting errors by the Pioneers, a trio of kills by Elle Brainard and a winner by Sorensen paced USU to a 9-2 start in the fifth.
“We just said this is not going to happen in our home,” Sorensen said. “We’re going to come out, take it to them and get the win.”
Aggie head coach Grayson DuBose was happy with how his team responded in the final set.
“I thought we were flat when we came out, but were fortunate to get game one,” DuBose said. “The girls took it upon themselves to talk more and be more disciplined with our block and offense. Our ball control picked up.”
Rachel Orr kept the momentum going for the hosts with a kill — she had a team-best 15 for the match — and then teamed up with Kaitlyn VanHoff for a block. Richins finished off the match with back-to-back kills. The freshman came off the bench in the fourth when Josselyn White had a health issue.
“Coming off the bench is kind of nerve-racking at first, but then I realized the whole team was behind me,” said Richins, who hit a team-high .417 with seven kills. “I had nothing to lose, so just go all out. I just gave it my all.
“McKell (Staheli) said she had my back and would cover me, so I thought I’m going to swing away.”
Richins called coming off the bench more mental, but she also had studied the scouting report. She also watched the outside hitters and of course listened to the coaches between sets and during timeouts.
The Aggie coach was pleased with how Richins filled in.
“Candace is good, so we have no qualms about putting her in,” DuBose said. “... It was neat to see Candace do that. ... Maybe she is young enough to not worry about a tight match, because she was free swinging.”
“Candace Richins, wow, she is a stud,” Sorensen said. “She came in and gave us the spark that we needed. She hit outstanding and was money.”
While USU took control in the fifth, the momentum actually started to swing in the Aggies favor in the fourth. Trailing 9-5, USU went on an 11-2 run as Sorensen had three kills, and Orr gave the hosts a 16-11 lead on a winner.
“We needed to get into our own rhythm, get excited, stuff that we are known for,” Sorensen said. “... Once we figured that out and snapped out of that, we played really well the last couple (of sets).”
The Pioneers did fight back within a point. Then Richins took over. She had four straight kills, and the Aggies forced a fifth set.
“Everything was just right; we were clicking as a team,” Richins said. “I felt like we had very good momentum.”
The first three sets were a back-and-forth affair. There were 40 ties and 21 lead changes.
Saturday's match pitted the top two teams in the WAC in the blocking department and they lived up to the billing. The Aggies finished with 14 total team blocks, while the Pioneers tallied 14.5.
“We got better with our block as the match went on,” DuBose said
VanHoff led USU by registering a match-high 10 blocks, while Orr added six and Brainard notched four. Denver was led by nine blocks from Faimie Kingsley, who entered the match leading the league in blocks.
Aggie setter Paige Neves dished out a match-best 53 assists, which was her third match this season with 50 or more helpers.
Five USU players posted double-digit digs, including Sorensen, Neves (11), Staheli (18), Ashlan Rogers (16) and White (10).
Denver was led by Colleen King with 22 kills. Bailey Karst dished out 47 assists, and Kate Acker posted a team-high 17 digs.