Back on Aug. 31, the day before BYU upset Arizona on the football field in Tucson, the Cougar women’s volleyball team stunned No. 1 Stanford 3-2 in a five-set thriller at Smith Fieldhouse.
Little did anyone realize at the time that the Cardinal would not suffer another loss the rest of the season, or that BYU would ascend to the No. 1 spot in the national rankings for 11 straight weeks before falling 3-0 to Loyola Marymount in the West Coast Conference regular-season finale.
The rematch of that epic early season clash comes with much higher stakes: a berth in the NCAA Division I women’s volleyball championship match.
The top-seeded Cardinal (31-1) take on No. 4 seed BYU (31-1) at 5 p.m. MST Thursday night in a Final Four match at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn. The match will be televised by ESPN, as will Thursday’s second national semifinal, No. 7 Nebraska, the defending national champion, vs. No. 3 Illinois.
“I am so excited for our team,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “I am proud of the season we’ve put together. I am happy for the way they’ve been playing. We’re heading into the Final Four playing well, and there’s nothing better than that.”
Obviously, Stanford is playing well, too, although the Cardinal dropped the first set to No. 8 seed Penn State and trailed late in the second set before rallying past the Nittany Lions in the Stanford Regional Final last Saturday. The Cougars swept No. 5 seed Texas that same night in Provo.
“We are a fighting team and we are resilient,” said BYU’s star, senior outside hitter Roni Jones-Perry, who was named an AVCA First-Team All-American on Wednesday. “I really like the way we are playing right now. We do a good job staying in the present and focusing on what we do next. That’s helped us play our best all season.”
BYU middle blocker Heather Gneiting was also honored by the AVCA Wednesday, earning Freshman of the Year honors and Third-Team All-America recognition. All-America honors also went to senior setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich (first team), junior libero Mary Lake (second team), sophomore middle blocker Kennedy Eschenberg (honorable mention) and junior outside hitter McKenna Miller (honorable mention).
Gneiting, fellow freshman Madelyn Robinson, Eschenberg and seniors Lacy Haddock and Danelle Stetler have upped their games the past month since Miller sustained a season-ending ACL injury.
NCAA WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL FINAL FOUR
At the Target Center, Minneapolis, Minn.
Thursday’s Semifinal Matches
No. 1 Stanford (31-1) vs. No. 4 BYU (31-1), 5 p.m. MST
No. 3 Illinois (32-3) vs. No. 7 Nebraska (28-6), 7:30 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN
In that early match against Stanford in front of 3,389 fans in Provo, the scores were 25-22, 25-20, 21-25, 20-25 and 15-11 as the Cougars won the first two sets, faded a bit in the third and fourth sets, then jumped ahead early in the fifth set and delivered the upset.
Jones-Perry had 20 kills and hit .341 in the match, while Miller had 15 kills. Stanford’s star, Kathryn Plummer, had 21 kills but hit just .176.
Jones-Perry and Plummer, the 2017 Player of the Year, are two of the leading candidates for National Player of the Year honors, which will be announced Friday.
Olmstead should be a strong candidate for Coach of the Year honors; her brother, Shawn, won the honor in 2014 when he lead the Cougars to the championship match, which was the last time BYU made it to the Final Four. Heather became BYU’s coach the following year when Shawn moved over to replace Chris McGown as the men’s coach.
“This team loves each other,” Heather Olmstead said. “They serve each other. They are out there every day grinding for each other and themselves as well. They know what they want, and they have a lot of belief in themselves. We have been through a lot, not just in volleyball, but in life.”