BYU knew it had a steep mountain to climb if it wanted to keep dancing but struggled to use its usual weapons and instead fell to overall top seed Wisconsin, 3-0, in Saturday’s NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament third-round match in Omaha, Neb.
The Badgers went into the regional semifinal having not lost a single match and having won 43 of 46 sets. No team has managed to take Wisconsin to five sets this season.
“It wasn’t our night, but we fought through the match as best we could,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “... It was really a fantastic tournament and felt privileged that we got to play in such a unique NCAA Tournament.”
The Cougars, who finished their season with a 17-2 overall record, struggled to perform at the same level they had been doing all season. While previously attacking at a 31% clip, BYU managed a hitting percentage of only 15% against the Badgers.
Senior middle blocker Kennedy Eschenberg came into the match averaging 1.59 blocks per set, with an attacking clip of 45.6%. On Saturday, Eschenberg was held to 11.8% and recorded only four blocks.
Taylen Ballard-Nixon, who was a strong contributor in Thursday’s second-round win over UCLA, was also silenced at the net. The senior committed twice as many attacking errors (8) as kills recorded (4).
Wisconsin is also a strong serving team, which was highlighted by the Badgers’ six aces against BYU.
“Offensively, we needed to attack better and defensively we needed to hold down,” Olmstead said.
The Cougars were able to keep the attack going in the first set, although falling 25-20. In the ensuing sets, the Badgers started pulling away much quicker.
Wisconsin opened up the second set 8-2 before eventually recording a 25-17 win, and routed the Cougars 25-12 in the third set.
“I thought we got in their face early and disrupted them a little bit early,” Olmstead said. ”In that first set, we were doing our job — we knew our assignments and getting some decent touches, slowing them down.”
While the Cougars obviously didn’t want their season to end this way — or this early — they still found a silver lining: All the players will be returning next season.
The team’s two seniors, Eschenberg and Ballard-Nixon, have already said they’ll take advantage of the NCAA’s blanket waiver due to the pandemic and will be coming back for another season.
The Cougars talked about just that, and how it would set them up for an even bigger opportunity in four months, following their NCAA Tournament exit.
“All I’m going to be talking about is that we need to get better and we can get better,” Olmstead said. “And that, if we want a different result, we’re going to have to keep pushing ourselves to get better these next four months because fall is going to be coming around pretty quickly.”