BYU women’s volleyball continues to provide a winning combination
OK, Heather Olmstead, a question: What’s the secret sauce for the consistent success of the BYU women’s volleyball program?
“I can’t tell you,” Olmstead said with a smile in a rare moment of levity.
Olmstead did eventually offer a glimpse into what works for the Cougars.
“We have great players and a great coaching staff,” Olmstead said. “We have high character young women who excel in the classroom and life. They are high performing and we are here so we can help them accomplish their goals.”
That recipe has produced a national championship appearance (in 2014 under her brother, Shawn Olmstead), a Final Four berth in 2018 and at least a Sweet 16 spot in eight of the past nine seasons.
On Wednesday, BYU was picked to win the West Coast Conference title for the eighth time by the league’s coaches, receiving 81 points and nine first-place votes. San Diego was chosen second with 70 points and one first-place vote and Pepperdine (68 points) was tagged for third.
“Our goal is the same every year,” Heather Olmstead said. “We want to win our conference and see how far we can go in the NCAA Tournament. Last year we were not voted to win the conference and the girls took that as a personal challenge. We have conversations about what we want to do and what we believe we can do.”
Where Were We?
The pandemic forced the fall 2020 season to be moved to spring of 2021. BYU had to deal with some cancellations but forged a 16-1 record season and a 15-1 mark in the WCC, good for the league title. The Cougars earned the No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which was held in Omaha, Nebraska.
BYU swept UCLA 3-0 in the second round and faced No. 1 overall seed Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, falling in three sets to end the season at 17-2 and ranked No. 15 in the country.
Setter Whitney Bower was named the WCC Player and Setter of the Year as well as an honorable mention All-American. Middle blocker Kennedy Eschenberg earned third team All-American honors and Taylen Ballard-Nixon was honorable mention All-American.
Faces old and new
The NCAA granted all players an additional year of eligibility due to the pandemic and BYU’s two seniors – Eschenberg and Ballard-Nixon – opted to return to Provo for another season in the fall. Freshman Leilani Dotson elected to play closer to home and transferred to Northwestern, but nearly every other Cougar who made a contribution in the spring season returns.
That includes Bower, who averaged 10.73 assists and 3.51 digs per set along with a team high 22 aces, and libero Madi Allen, who averaged 4.21 digs per set. Ballard-Nixon (3.79 kills per set) and Eschenberg (1.58 blocks and 2.60 kills per set) will help form a formidable front line at 6-foot-3 and 6-5, respectively.
A familiar face will join Eschenberg in the middle with Heather Gneiting returning from her church mission. Gneiting was named AVCA Freshman of the Year in 2018 and All-WCC first team in 2019, averaging 1.23 blocks per set before electing to serve a mission.
Olmstead reached into the transfer portal this summer and emerged with an All-American in opposite hitter Kenzie Koerber from the University of Utah. The 6-3 left-hander was second on the team in kills (163) last season. The Cougars also received commitments from a pair of Division I defensive specialists in Aria McComber (Washington State) and Gretchen Reinert (Santa Clara).
BYU could have five All-Americans on the floor in its starting lineup including Bower, Eschenberg, Gneiting, Ballard-Nixon and Koerber.
The 2021 freshman class, led by 6-2 outside hitter Elyse Stowell, 6-1 setter Zayna Meyer and 6-2 outside hitter Sophie Callahan, was ranked No. 7 in the country by Volleyball Magazine.
Five players – Bower, Eschenberg, Ballard-Nixon, Gneiting and sophomore opposite hitter Kate Grimmer – were selected to the preseason All-WCC team.
“We have a lot of younger players who played last year,” Olmstead said. “And then we have our seniors coming back. I like our experience and our blocking strength. I really don’t know offensively but we have some great pieces. We’d like to be a scrappy team defensively. I think we have the potential to be a well-rounded team. We’ll see when we get into the gym.”
The road to the tournament
BYU opens preseason play with two tournaments in the Smith Fieldhouse featuring Southern Utah, UNLV and Long Island in the doTerra Classic (August 27-28) and Weber State, Michigan State and Dixie State in the BYU Invitational (Sept. 2-4).
The Cougars travel to the Panther Challenge on Sept. 10-11, with a matchup against No. 9 Pittsburgh. BYU hosts rival Utah on Sept. 16 and plays Utah Valley on Sept. 18 before WCC play begins with home matches against Pacific and Saint Mary’s on Sept. 23 and 25.
“We’re excited about the variety in our schedule,” Olmstead said. “Eight of our ten preseason opponents are NCAA tournament teams and six (UNLV, Utah Valley, Weber State, High Point, Bowling Green and Pittsburgh) were conference champions. I like how we’re going to test ourselves against some of the best teams in the country to prepare for conference play.”
Five Things to Watch with BYU Women’s Volleyball
1. A Deep Roster
Depth is a little tricky in college volleyball because of substitution restrictions, but the wealth of talent will be very important in practice to keep the starters on their toes.
2. Omstead’s Reign
Heather Olmstead and her coaching staff know exactly what needs to be done to keep the Cougars among the elite of college volleyball and their track record proves it.
3. Don’t test the middle
Kennedy Eschenberg (6-5) and Heather Gneiting (6-4) provide a formidable middle blocker combination for BYU, both offensively and defensively.
4. Bower Power
Whitney Bower, who was named the WCC Player and Setter of the Year in spring of 2021, is one of the most versatile players in the country and directs the Cougars powerful attack.
5. Back in the Fieldhouse
Not only will larger crowds be allowed in the Smith Fieldhouse this fall but the school replaced the ancient wooden chair with padded plastic ones, which should, ahem, “sit” well with the enthusiastic Cougar supporters.
BYU Courtesy PhotoBYU women’s volleyball coach Heather Olmstead
BYU Courtesy PhotoBYU’s Kennedy Eschenberg attacks the ball in a women’s college volleyball match against San Diego in the Smith Fieldhouse on Saturday, March 20, 2021.
BYU Courtesy PhotoBYU’s (from left) Taylen Ballard-Nixon, Whitney Bower, Erin Livingston, Kennedy Eschenberg and Kate Grimmer celebrate a point in a women’s college volleyball match against San Diego at the Smith Fieldhouse on Saturday, March 20, 2021.
The BYU women’s volleyball team huddles with Coach Heather Olmstead before a match against Loyola Marymount in the Smith Fieldhouse on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.
BYU Courtesy PhotoBYU’s Taylen Ballard-Nixon (in white) attacks the ball during a women’s college volleyball match against Utah Valley at Lockhart Arena on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.
BYU Courtesy PhotoBYU setter Whitney Bower (7) digs a ball in a women’s college volleyball match against Utah Valley in Lockhart Arena on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.