With a rotation that includes three freshmen, including a 17-year-old setter, the No. 9 BYU women’s volleyball team has some growing to do.
Two matches in one day during the Nike Invitational at the Smith Fieldhouse revealed a lot about the 2019 version of the Cougars, who are following one of the best BYU teams ever. The Cougars won both matches, sweeping both Boise State and Utah Valley to start the season 2-0.
The evening match against UVU was tighter than the 25-21, 25-21, 25-20 score might indicate. The Wolverines outdug the home team 33 to 28 and outblocked BYU 12.0 to 5.5, making life difficult for the Cougar offense.
“This is new for everybody,” BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. “It’s new playing next to each other, and we have a new setter. We’re all just trying to get better playing together. I loved the way we responded today. I thought (freshman) Abbey Dayton was great passing. They picked on her and she held her own, and that was really impressive, especially at the end of the third set when she had some critical passes for us. It’s great to get our young players experience and I think they’re doing a great job so far.”
Freshman setter Whitney Bower — who graduated from high school a year early to join the Cougars in August — contributed 35 assists and two aces.
“It’s not easy to come in as a freshman and take the reins of setting,” Olmstead said. “She’s got competition and she’s getting better every day. I think we just look for her to continue to put up simple, hittable sets for our hitters to get into rhythm.”
In Set 1, a McKenna Miller attack bounced high and deflected off a speaker on the ceiling, but the Wolverines kept playing and passed the ball over for a point while the Cougars were celebrating to help cut a five-point deficit to 20-18. UVU took a 21-20 lead before Kennedy Eschenberg ended the run with a kill to tie the set at 21-all. From there — with Bower at the service line — BYU scored four straight as UVU struggled to pass Bower’s serve. Eschenberg killed an overpass for set point and freshman Kate Grimmer did the same on the next serve for the 25-21 win.
UVU kept BYU on its toes with some crafty off-speed shots to keep Set 2 close. Heather Gnieting dominated down the stretch for the Cougars. Her kill ended a long rally for a 23-20 BYU lead then she blasted another one to reach set point. Finally, Gneiting blocked a UVU attack for the 25-20 victory and 2-0 lead in the match. After hitting just .125 in the first set, BYU hit .429 in the second.
UVU came out strong in Set 3 and led 6-2 after sending back three straight BYU attacks. The Cougars finally took control with a good stretch from junior Taylen Ballard-Nixon, who counted a pair of kills for a 15-13 lead. When McKenna Miller went through the block, the Cougars were up 22-15. At match point, Miller and Eschenberg teamed up for a block and the sweep.
Ballard-Nixon, who missed most of 2017 with a knee injury, has worked her way back into the lineup and tied for the lead in kills (12) with Miller, hitting a robust .435.
“I feel really good,” she said. “I think I’ve gotten stronger this season and my teammates push me every single day. I feel strong and like I can jump again. Our fight was really strong in this game. We never gave up. I loved our passing and we were able to set everybody because we passed well.”
Eschenberg added 11 kills for BYU and libero Mary Lake contributed 10 digs.
Former Pleasant Grove standout Kazna Tarawhiti led Utah Valley (0-2) with 11 kills and five block assists, while Makaila Jarema topped the Wolverines with six block assists.
BYU faces its toughest challenge in the Invitational tonight against No. 16 Marquette, which swept both Utah Valley and Boise State on Friday.
“We’re so ready,” Ballard-Nixon said. “We’re so excited to get after it. The next game is always our most important game. We love playing in the Fieldhouse. It’s like no other place and our fan support is so cool.”
BYU 3, Boise State 0
Miller led the Cougars to a sweep of Boise State earlier in the day with 13 kills and hit .281 and Bower, making her first career start, had five of her team’s nine service aces and 31 assists.
Lake led all players with 17 digs in the win. Eschenberg contributed nine kills and four block assists. Grimmer added seven kills and six block assists for the Cougars.
In the first match of the tournament, No. 16 Marquette powered past Utah Valley 3-0 (25-14, 25-18, 25-22), led by 6-foot-5 All-Big East outside hitter Allie Barber, who hit .444 and had 14 kills. Tarawhiti paced UVU with 13 kills and 10 digs.
Marquette also swept Boise State 25-22, 27-25, 25-22 with Hope Werch (13 kills), Kaitlyn Lines (13) and Barber leading a balanced attack.