Provo • It was one of the most gut-wrenching ways imaginable to see a season end.
BYU’s women’s volleyball team battled back from a 2-0 deficit at No. 4 Texas in an NCAA Sweet 16 meeting and was a point away from winning the decisive fifth set. But the Longhorns rallied to win 3-2 and made it to the national championship match, while the Cougars finished with a 29-4 record, No. 8 national ranking and headed back to Provo wondering what might have been.
“We don’t dwell on a lot of things, but we definitely talk about that to get us fired up and help us remember that every point matters,” sophomore libero Mary Lake said. “Especially for the players who were there, that will always be in the backs of our minds.”
BYU WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL
Key losses • Amy Boswell, Whitney Young Howard, Makenna Santiago, Hannah Robison
Key returners • Veronica Jones-Perry, McKenna Miller, Mary Lake, Lacy Haddock, Alohi Robins Hardy, Cosy Burnett, Lyndie Haddock
Key newcomers • Sara Hamson, Taylen Ballard, Allison Stapleton, Sydnie Martindale
BYU Invitational opponents • Saint Louis (Friday), UT Rio Grande Valley (Friday), Ohio State (Saturday)
Coach Heather Olmstead’s Cougars, ranked 10th in the preseason coaches poll, begin the 2017 campaign Friday by hosting the BYU Invitational at Smith Fieldhouse. They will meet Saint Louis at noon Friday and UT Rio Grande Valley at 7:30 p.m. that night. The tournament concludes Saturday against No. 21 Ohio State at 7:30 p.m.
“We have made some good progress in this preseason practice session, and we are excited to play some teams this weekend,” Olmstead said. “We will know more [after that]. This team has great energy and they get along great. They play for each other. I think we are going to get better over the course of the season.”
As for last year’s finish to a season that saw the Cougars win their third straight West Coast Conference title and advance to at least the regional semifinals of the NCAAs for the fifth-straight season, Olmstead said the program can “learn and grow” from the experience.
“It will be exciting to see what this year’s team can do,” Olmstead said. “That was a great position for the team to be in last year. It is a great opportunity any time you make it to the Sweet 16.”
The goal this year is to play so well that the Cougars are seeded high enough to host a regional, but that’s a lot to ask of a team outside a Power 5 conference. Olmstead said being ranked No. 10 to start the season is “absolutely” a sign of respect, but she realizes the accolades are mostly for last year’s team.
“We are more concerned about where we are at the end of the year than we are this opening weekend,” she said.
Olmstead’s biggest challenge is to replace two of the better players in program history, graduated middle blockers Amy Boswell and Whitney Young Howard. Senior Cosy Burnett will move from opposite hitter to the middle, and big things are expected of Bountiful product Kennedy Redding, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman.
Another 6-4 prospect, sophomore Emily Lewis, also is vying for a spot in the middle, along with senior Madeline Graham and sophomore Megan Mowry.
“We have been answering that question since spring, and our girls did a great job in spring trying to fill in for those seniors that left,” Olmstead said. “Amy and Whit were fantastic middle blockers. We have a lot of depth in the middle. We will see who rolls out there on Friday and see if we can keep getting better over the season.”
The Cougars look solid everywhere else.
Excellent outside hitters Veronica “Roni” Jones-Perry, who played in the Team USA volleyball program this summer, and WCC newcomer of the year McKenna Miller return along with steady junior Lacy Haddock, who plays both OH and opposite.
Lake set a school record with 547 digs last season and anchors a defense that should be bolstered by the addition of Snow College transfer Sydnie Martindale. Lyndie Haddock and Alohi Robins-Hardy again will handle the setter position duties.