All-American libero Mary Lake joined the BYU women’s volleyball team in the winter of 2016, graduating from high school early to begin her college career at 17.
Whitney Bower should be playing her senior year in high school in Nampa, Idaho, but decided to reclassify and joined the Cougars in August. She’s 17 years old and the starting setter on the No. 9 team in the country.
Both Lake and Bower received the guidance and encouragement they needed to excel because that’s part of the legacy and culture of a BYU women’s volleyball program that has reached seven straight NCAA Sweet 16’s.
The Cougars are 9-2 heading into West Coast Conference play this week, opening with a road trip to Gonzaga and Portland. BYU is coming off a 3-1 win at rival Utah and a stunning 3-1 victory at No. 1 Stanford. BYU has won five straight WCC regular-season titles, so confidence and expectations are high.
“The conference is going to be challenging, always is,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “I definitely think we’re going to be challenged on the road and at home. We know that the WCC has good serving teams, and that’s always going to challenge you when you have good serving teams and you have to pass, especially on the road.”
But back to Lake and Bower.
Lake missed her senior season at Palm Springs High School in California due to a knee injury but BYU coach Heather Olmstead was certain she would be a four-year starter at libero. Lake is an inspirational player on the court, encouraging teammates and keeping them focused.
Still, she appreciated those who showed her the way things were done in Provo, specifically former All-Americans Amy Boswell-Usevitch and Whitney Young-Howard.
“Amy was always building me up and giving me confidence, telling me I was going to play and the team needed me and I was exactly what the team needed,” Lake said. “I’ve never really thought back to that relationship, but even during the season when I had my downs and my ups, she was always there to build me back up and get me back on my feet. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell Whitney (Bower) is that she’s exactly what this team needs because it’s true. She’s awesome.”
Through 11 matches, Bower is averaging 10.38 assists per set, 2.62 digs per set and leads the team with 24 aces. Against Stanford, the left-hander had 48 assists and led the team with 18 digs.
“Whitney is so composed for how young and inexperienced she is in collegiate game,” Olmstead said. “Serving is a strength for her and defensively she’s getting more confident in the back row and digging a lot of balls for us. With her and Mary back there together it was hard for Stanford to score points and I think that’s huge for us. Whitney has inspired other people to play better floor defense as well. Her ability to make good decisions and set the right people at the right time, she’s continuing to develop that.”
Lake isn’t shy about sharing her enthusiasm and experience with Bower.
“They have a great relationship,” Olmstead said. “Mary is doing such a great job encouraging Whitney to just keep doing her best and keep being who she is and having that competitive fire. They are very similar that way with their energy and their fire. I think they look to each other in that. Mary is doing such a good job leading her and showing her how to be resilient and have that forward focus to that next point. As a setter you always need to be thinking ahead and focused on that next touch.”
Lake’s tutelage was important last week when Bower was experiencing a Utah rivalry match and a trip to a Top 5 program’s home floor in Stanford for the first time. It will continue to pay dividends during the WCC schedule and beyond.
“I’ve loved and admired Whitney since she got here,” Lake said. “You could tell she’s an exceptionally hard worker. She will fight to win and has a confidence. When she started playing I told her she was what was right for the team right now. She’s going to be an incredible volleyball player. She has a presence on the court and I think she’s doing a fantastic job.”