Provo • Although its glossy record shows just one blemish, BYU sustained two losses recently that reverberated around the college volleyball world and casts doubt on whether the Cougars can make a lengthy run in the NCAA tournament.
The first loss wasn’t recorded in the scorebook. It came when junior outside hitter McKenna Miller, arguably BYU’s second-best player, sustained an ACL injury on Nov. 9 and was sidelined for the remainder of the season.
The second loss, BYU’s first and only loss that dents it record, was at Loyola Marymount last week, a stunning 3-0 sweep by the Lions — who also made the NCAA tournament — that called into question whether BYU (27-1) deserved a coveted top-four seed.
The NCAA selection committee gave the Cougars one anyway, and they will host Stony Brook (21-8) on Friday night at Smith Fieldhouse in a first-round match at 7 p.m. Utah (18-13) will meet Denver (27-2) at 4 p.m., and Friday’s winners will meet Saturday at 7 for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.
Yes, a BYU-Utah rematch of BYU’s easy 3-0 win in September is a distinct possibility. But that’s not as favorable news as some BYU fans might suspect. Utah is one of the hottest teams in the country right now, having won five of its last six matches to finish 10-10 in the Pac-12 and in a three-way tie for sixth-place in that tough conference.
“That would be a fun matchup, but we know we that we have to get past the first one first,” said BYU setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich. “We had a good idea that Utah would come here. The NCAA likes to keep teams as close to home as possible.”
Stony Brook, from New York’s Long Island, won’t be a pushover, coach Heather Olmstead said.
The Seawolves are coming off their second-straight America East championship, downing Albany in five sets in the title game, and have won 17 straight games.
“Anytime a team has won a bunch, they are going to be confident coming in here,” said Olmstead, the West Coast Conference Coach of the Year. “They look good. I don’t think they are going to be afraid.”
Olmstead and Haddock-Eppich said BYU’s confidence is fine, although the Cougars looked out of sync offensively last time out.
“Our team is a resilient group,” Olmstead said. “We got back in the gym last weekend and were able to talk about it and see what we want to do better from that match. ... Our team is mature enough to know that we are not going to be defined by one win or one loss.”
Olmstead reminded reporters that the Cougars played well in defeating San Francisco, Saint Mary’s and Pacific after Miller’s season-ending injury and said Danelle Stetler, Taylen Ballard, Madelyn Robinson and Lacy Haddock — Lyndie’s sister — have filled in admirably.
“Obviously, losing McKenna, it is something we are just working on [to overcome],” Olmstead said. “We like serving in our gym. That’s something we want to get more comfortable with back here. We were on the road for those three matches, so it was quite a long road trip. We left, came back, and left again. It is nice to be home for this match, and hopefully another one on Saturday.”
The Cougars are led by WCC Player of the Year Roni Jones-Perry, who is No. 4 in the nation in points per set (5.47) and No. 10 in kills per set (4.71). Olmstead said Jones-Perry “is going to be one of the greatest outsides to ever play here, when it is all said and done.”
Junior libero Mary Lake is the WCC Defender of the Year for the second-straight season and middle blocker Heather Gneiting is the WCC Freshman of the Year.
“Yeah, McKenna was a big part of our team, and she still is a big part of our team,” Haddock-Eppich said. “But we still have people that can step up as well. People love to talk, but we are still focused on us and not what the outside is saying to us. You are always going to have negative forces coming at you. But if we stay strong to our team and what we know we can do, we will be OK.”
NCAA WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL TOURNAMENT
Friday’s First Round Matches at BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse
• Utah (18-13) vs. Denver (27-2), 4 p.m.
• No. 4 BYU (27-1) vs. Stony Brook (21-8), 7 p.m. (BYUtv)
Saturday’s Second-Round Match at Smith Fieldhouse
• First round winners, 7 p.m.