Provo • When friends, boosters and family members ask fourth-year BYU women’s volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead about his 2014 recruiting class, he has a simple, one-sentence reply.
"We get a girl named Jennifer Hamson back, and that’s our biggest recruit of the year," he says.
BYU women’s volleyball overview
Expectations » Picked to win the West Coast Conference and ranked ninth in the country, the Cougars are expected to improve on last year’s run to the NCAA Tournament’s Regional Semifinals.
Coach » Shawn Olmstead, 4th season (73-20)
2013 record » 24-7/15-3 (2nd, WCC)
Notable returners » All-American Jennifer Hamson returns for her senior season after redshirting in 2013 to concentrate on basketball, and preseason all-WCC pick Alexa Gray is back after a phenomenal sophomore season.
Notable losses » Middle blocker Kathryn LeCheminant graduated and OH Kimberly Dahl departed on a church mission.
That would be 2012 AVCA First-Team All-American and West Coast Conference Player of the Year Jennifer Hamson, who put her volleyball career on hold in 2013 in order to play for the BYU women’s basketball team full-time. Hamson was an All-American and the WCC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in that sport, too.
After she was taken in the second round of April’s WNBA Draft by the Los Angeles Sparks, there was some speculation that Hamson might take the money and turn pro.
But Olmstead said he "never doubted" that the 6-foot-7 superstar from Pleasant Grove High would not fulfill her promise and return to the volleyball team for her final season of eligibility.
"Some people made it out that there was this big decision ahead of her, but she was always straightforward with me about wanting to come back and play volleyball," Olmstead said.
So the Cougars, ranked ninth nationally by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA), begin the 2014 season on Friday in the Gold & Blue Player’s Challenge at West Virginia University with a mountain of expectations on their shoulders, thanks to the return of Hamson and other stars such as preseason all-WCC pick Alexa Gray, senior outside hitter Tambre (Haddock) Nobles, libero Ciara Parker and middle blocker Whitney Young.
The Cougars host WVU at 5 p.m. Friday, then play IUPUI and Toledo on Saturday.
The only starter gone off the team that surprised a lot of people by making it to the NCAA Regional Semifinals in 2013 without Hamson is middle blocker Kathryn LeCheminant.
Expectations are "higher than normal," Olmstead acknowledged, "just because their preseason ranking and the work they’ve done the past few years. We have tried to keep them in check and help them understand that until they get out and win volleyball matches against good opponents, none of those [expectations] really matter."
Olmstead put together a challenging nonconference schedule knowing that "if this team can manage all those expectations and stay on course, we have a good group that can do some great things."
Their home opener is Sept. 5 against No. 4 Washington, and they will play at No. 18 Colorado State, which lost just one match last year, on Sept. 12.
Rival Utah visits on Sept. 19.
"I wanted to see these kids stretched a little bit," Olmstead said. "I like the schedule we have, and it seems to be developing the way we want it to."
Setter Camry Godfrey Willardson, OH Hannah Robison, MB/RS Amy Boswell and DS/L Tia Withers Welling also return, so Olmstead said it will be difficult for newcomers Jaiden Achermann, Danelle Parady, Madeline Graham, Alohi Robins-Hardy and Malery Wahlin to get playing time, let alone crack the starting lineup, but he is excited about the new recruits.
Even those not named Jennifer Hamson.
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