The sweet spot for a pass in volleyball is about five feet from the net and five feet off the right sideline.

A perfect pass gives a setter the full range of offensive options and creates the kind of rhythm that makes it difficult for a defense to stop.

Ninth-ranked BYU faces its most difficult challenge in West Coast Conference play on Friday night in the Smith Fieldhouse against San Diego, and how many times the Cougars can get that perfect pass to freshman setter Whitney Bower will have a huge impact on the outcome of the match.

“Platform” is a buzzword when it comes to passing.

“It’s about their wrists and hands, how they put their arms together and how they track the ball,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “The platform is a big deal in how simple it is. A lot of younger kids complicate their platform before they pass. We want it as simple and as quiet as possible.”

Olmstead said the ability to pass is one of the hardest skills to translate from high school to college volleyball.

“Passing is one of the top things we look for in recruiting,” Olmstead said. “We look at their platform and their ability to see the right things. We look at if they can get a good read off the server. We want kids that can play six rotations and we want liberos who have a knack for the ball.”

The Cougars have one of the country’s top liberos in senior Mary Lake, a two-time WCC Defensive Player of the Year who spent this summer playing for the U.S. National Team. With 1,716 career digs, she’s nearing the school record which is currently held by Ciara Parker (1,793).

When Lake joined the program in 2016, Olmstead predicted she would start all four years, and she has.

“Mary has a knack and a feel for the ball,” Olmstead said. “You can see that when she sets it for us when we’re out of system, whether she is setting it with her hands or her platform. She’s able to put it where she wants it. When we recruited her, we liked Mary’s platform, we liked her eye work, we liked her quickness, we liked her energy and we liked her fearlessness.”

Olmstead believes her team has made a lot of improvement in passing the ball this season. The Cougars lost two key back row passers to graduation – defensive specialist Sydney Martindale and outside hitter Danelle Stetler — whose skills allowed BYU to be in system and set up All-Americans Lyndie Haddock-Eppich and Roni Jones Perry to do their thing during last year’s Final Four run.

Bower doesn’t have Haddoch-Eppich’s blocking ability but is a tremendous passer and is second on the team in digs to Lake. Freshmen defensive specialists Grace Wee and Morgan Bower have had opportunities to pass in the back row along with outside hitters Riley Lyman and Madi Robinson.

By her own admission, Robinson was once a “terrible” passer.

“It was a process,” Robinson admitted. “I was not a natural passer, but it’s nothing a little bit of work can’t help. I had to get a lot of touches on my platform and get a feel for it. It’s about seeing the serve and knowing all the different types of serves. It’s kind of like in baseball how a batter sees a pitcher. When you see enough serves and get enough reps you start picking up on cues for serve receive.

“It’s a lot simpler than it looks, but passing is going to win or lose a lot of games. If you can’t pass it, you can’t hit a ball. My job is to get the ball up to the setter. If she can get a good set, the job is done.”

Olmstead said her entire team has put in the work to become better passers.

“I’m happy for them to see then get even one percent better each day,” Olmstead said. “It’s gratifying because they’ve put in a lot of hard work. We like to work hard on the right things and that’s a big deal for us. We like to spend time on the things that give us the most return.

“When I see them making improvements and having that growth mindset I just get excited for them because they can carry that into all aspects of life – academics, spiritual, personal, social. If you put in the work, you’re going to see the results.”

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