Compare the offensive and defensive numbers of this year’s BYU women’s volleyball team to last year’s marks and the data is down.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
In 2018, the Cougars ranked in the top 5 both offensively and defensively as they ran off 27 consecutive victories, earned the No. 1 spot in the polls for 11 weeks and made their way to the Final Four. Two generational players – outside hitter Roni Jones-Perry and setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich – earned first team All-American honors. Both graduated, along with two excellent back row passers in Sydney Martindale and Danelle Stetler.
How could BYU possibly maintain those eye-popping statistics?
While the offensive and defensive numbers have fallen in 2019, the Cougars are still performing at a high level and the wins keep coming. The only losses for ninth-ranked BYU (10-2 overall) came to ranked teams (Marquette and Texas) and the Cougars have started the West Coast Conference season 5-0 heading into a pair of home games this week in the Smith Fieldhouse.
“I’m really pleased with the way we’ve been playing the last four weeks on the road,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “Obviously, winning is good but getting better is better. The growth of some of the younger players and collectively as a team, we’re starting to know who we are a little bit. We have a better identity. The road will do that pretty quickly for you. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and our fight. I think we’re a pretty resilient group and we’re pretty determined to keep getting better and see how good can be this season.”
Last season, the Cougars hit .304 while holding opponents to a .143 percentage. BYU also averaged 2.92 blocks per set. This year, the Cougars are hitting .264 while holding its opponents to a .176 percentage. BYU is averaging 2.26 blocks per set.
Breaking the numbers down even further: The Cougars returned both middle blockers in 2019 with AVCA Freshman of the Year Heather Gneiting and junior Kennedy Eschenberg. Gneiting went from a .380 hitting percentage and 1.50 blocks per game to a .259 hitting percentage and 1.26 blocks per set. Eschenberg hit .345 and had 1.32 blocks per set in 2019. This season she is at .337 and 1.14 blocks per set.
BYU is starting a freshman setter in Whitney Bower, who has performed spectacularly but some growing pains were expected as team chemistry was built.
Volleyball is a sport where the progression of skills – serving, passing, offense, blocking – build upon one another to create better results. That takes time, but the Cougars continue to win as they learn.
“We want to hold our opponent to a low hitting percentage,” Olmstead said. “Under .200 is great. We want to hit higher than our opponent and keep them to the lowest percentage we can. It starts with our serve, and then it goes to our block and then to our backcourt defense. If we can dig to kill and transition some balls, we can put ourselves in a good position.
“I know our passing has gotten better and our back row passing has gotten better. Offensively, Whit is doing great job spreading the ball around to multiple hitters and getting a lot of people involved. I think our middle connection has gotten better the last week as well.”
BYU has performed well defensively to open WCC play, holding its five opponents to hitting percentages of .022 (Gonzaga), .215 (Portland), .205 (Loyola Marymount), .176 (Pacific) and .113 (Saint Mary’s). Gneiting hit .455 against Pacific and .467 against Saint Mary’s and Eschenberg dominated at the net with seven block assists against the Gaels.
The connection between a new setter and her middle blockers can be the hardest to perfect.
“Whitney is having to decide, ‘is it a good pass or a bad pass? Do I set the middles or do I not set the middles?’” Olmstead said. “Of course, everyone knows people are going to set the middles on a perfect pass or a perfect dig, but we are looking for opportunities to set our middles on maybe some not-so-perfect situations where maybe we can set some things up for our pins.”
Eschenberg said she really doesn’t look at or compare numbers from last year’s Cougars.
“It’s great to see how much we improve from game to game,” Eschenberg said. “I’ve seen this a lot since I’ve been at BYU. We create good team chemistry and we try to execute our team skills. This is a new team, a different team than last year. We know we lost some good players from last year but we’ve gotten better at digging, and passing, and serving and blocking. It’s cool to see us improve.”