It didn’t take long for Jennifer Hamson to re-introduce her dominating game to her teammates.
“It was like, ‘Welcome back, here’s Jen, try to hit against me,’ ” BYU junior outside hitter Alexa Gray said. “There was a moment like that for every outside hitter in practice.”
Hamson, you remember, took a year away from volleyball at BYU to focus on basketball. The decision worked out pretty well: Hamson was named offensive and defensive player of the year in the West Coast Conference and led the Cougars to a Sweet 16 appearance in March.
The 6-foot-7 senior is expected to make a similar impact for the volleyball team in 2014.
BYU was ranked No. 9 in the first American Volleyball Association Coaches Poll of the season and has also been picked to win the WCC by the league’s coaches. Hamson, who also led the Cougar volleyball team to the Sweet 16 two years ago, is a big reason for those lofty expectations.
“I get the question, ‘How’s your recruiting class? Who is your best recruit?’ ” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “And I say, ‘Have you heard about this kid from Pleasant Grove named Jennifer Hamson?’ ”
Olmstead is well aware of the caliber of athlete he’s getting back.
“People don’t understand the uniqueness of this kid, what she’s done here at BYU,” Olmstead said. “I don’t want to get in trouble with alumni or other people, but I don’t know how you can’t say she’s not the greatest female athlete to ever come through BYU, because look what she’s done. She’s a one-of-a kind. I’m excited to see what she can do.”
As a junior in 2012, Hamson averaged 4.09 kills per set and hit .362. She also led the Cougars with 33 aces and averaged a team-best 1.26 blocks per set. BYU finished 28-4 and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 before falling to eventually national finalist Oregon.
Hamson said the transition from basketball to volleyball has been difficult because the training for the two sports is different. She trained and competed with the U.S. Collegiate National Volleyball Team this summer in Minneapolis.
“I’m sore in different places,” Hamson said. “I started volleyball and thought, ‘I haven’t used that muscle for a while.’ I needed to get in the rhythm of hitting, connecting with my setter, because I haven’t played with her in a year. I’ve slowly been getting back into it.”
Middle blocker Kathryn LaCheminant and outside hitter Jessica Jardine graduated from last year’s Sweet 16 team, but Olmstead returns plenty of talent. Setter Camry (Godfrey) Willardson, who had more than 1,300 assists last season, will direct a powerful offensive attack. In addition to Hamson, the Cougars can turn to Gray, who has more than 800 kills in two years as a starter. Tambre (Haddock) Nobles, who transferred in from Northern Colorado last year, averaged 3.47 kills per set and is an excellent all-around player. Libero Ciara Parker also returns. BYU has experienced middle blockers in Whitney Young and Amy Boswell and outside hitter Hannah Robison is challenging for playing time.
“The girls did a great job without Jen last year,” Olmstead said. “Those were big shoes to fill. We had to find points and we did it all season with a couple of different kids. Having Jen back changes a lot of things, not only for us defensively but offensively, too. I imagine it’s going to open up the net for other kids.”
The next step for the Cougars is moving beyond the Sweet 16.
“I think we’re all expecting more,” Gray said. “We’re working even harder than we did last year and with harder work will come more success.”
BYU opens the season at the Blue and Gold Challenge in West Virginia beginning Friday and will return to the Smith Fieldhouse for one of the year’s biggest matches against No. 4 Washington on Sept. 5.
“Expectations are a credit to what you’ve done, because if you’re not good, you have zero expectations,” Olmstead said. “Still, you have to get on the floor and get after it.”