Women's volleyball NCAA regional finals 01

Brigham Young University players celebrate after sweeping the University of Texas in an NCAA regional final match Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo. The Cougars will now advance to the NCAA women's volleyball Final Four held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

The BYU women’s volleyball team took on the world in the summer of 2019.

A numbers of Cougars, including head coach Heather Olmstead, were a part of the USA Volleyball program this summer. Olmstead and middle blocker Heather Gneiting took a trip with the US Women’s College National Team to Japan. Gneiting also played with the USA U20 team in Mexico at the Junior Nationals. Kennedy Eschenberg earned a spot on the World University Games team in Italy.

The biggest summer news was libero Mary Lake, who helped Team USA win the FIBA Nation’s Volleyball League and an Olympic Qualifier in July. With her performance she’ll have a chance to make the roster for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

As they prepare for the 2019 season, the Cougars will have to put last year’s Final Four appearance behind them to focus on creating a new legacy but intend to learn from this summer’s international experience.

“My hope is for them to be changed as people and be better volleyball players,” Olmstead said. “I want them to take those experiences and teach us what they learned and how they are different because of it. The way they prepared for matches, interacted with teammates, listened to coaches, all of it. We’ve already had moments where they have been able to share what they learned playing at that level and against some of the best players in the world. I want our younger girls that haven’t had that opportunity to get excited so that maybe they can do that one day themselves.”

BYU opens the season ranked No. 9 in the first American Coaches Volleyball Association poll with eight new players. The Cougars are also favored to win the West Coast Conference title for the sixth year in a row.

Where Were We?

BYU’s magical 2018 season took off on Aug. 31, when the Cougars upset No. 1 Stanford 3-2 in Provo. What followed was 11 straight weeks as the top-ranked team in the country. BYU won its first 27 matches but lost its season finale at Loyola Marymount. Still, the Cougars were awarded the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and hosted the first two rounds at the Smith Fieldhouse. BYU blew past Stony Brook and Utah to reach the Sweet 16, then topped Florida 3-1 and No. 5 Texas 3-0 in the regionals to earn a berth in the Final Four in Minneapolis. There, Stanford got its revenge in a three-set sweep and went on to win the NCAA title.

Seniors Roni Jones-Perry and Lyndie Haddock-Eppich were both named AVCA First Team All-Americans after stellar careers. In addition, graduation took back row passers Danelle Stetler and Sydney Martindale as well as versatile outside hitter Lacy Haddock.

The New Class

While Gneiting, Eschenberg and Lake lead an experienced group of returners, Olmstead and her coaching staff see a lot of potential among the eight newcomers.

“There will be some opportunities for people to step in and play at the pins,” Olmstead said. “We brought in every position but middle blocker, so there will be opportunities for people to get some playing time and compete for a role on our team.”

Gneiting – the AVCA Freshman of the Year in 2018 – and Eschenberg return to give BYU one of the top middle blocker tandems in the country.

Lake is a two-time WCC Defensive Player of the Year and has totaled 1,494 digs in three years as a starter, putting her on pace to break the school record held by Ciara Parker (1,793) this season.

Elsewhere, much is new for the Cougars in 2019. There are seven true freshmen from a recruiting class ranked as high as No. 4 by PrepVolleyball.com and one junior college transfer in SLCC defensive specialist Callie Whitney.

“We get that question all the time: How good are you going to be after losing all these people?” Lake said. “I think the freshmen are awesome. They’re really sweethearts and they are working really hard. The coaches did a great job of recruiting girls who give their all for the team. I don’t worry about them, ever. We try to teach them how we do things both on and off the court. How to be assertive, how to communicate, how to be humble and how to be teachable. It’s a big part of our team culture.”

Looking to replace Haddock-Eppich at setter is senior Kiani Moea’i, who played well during the spring season. She’ll be challenged by sophomore Taylor Tausinga and incoming freshman All-American Whitney Bower, who graduated from high school a year early to join the team in August. Olmstead said she is looking at the possibility of playing with two setters at times.

There are some talented freshman pin hitters who will challenge for playing time, led by second-team All-American Kate Grimmer, a member of Volleyball Magazine’s Fab 50.

Sophomore Madelyn Robinson, junior Taylen Ballard-Nixon and senior Riley Lyman have experience on the outside and will be counted on to continue their improvement, but the biggest question mark is the health of McKenna Miller. The senior from Murrieta, Calif., was having a terrific 2018 season, averaging 3.25 kills per set and hitting .307, when she was lost for the year with a knee injury in Game 24. Olmstead and her staff are bringing Miller along slowly but expect her to be ready for the start of the season.

“She’s doing a good job of recovering and getting her body strong,” Olmstead said. “She’s happy to be back on the court with her teammates, being able to interact with them. She played over the summer but training and practicing every day is new for her, so we’re taking it day by day to see how her knee responds to the work load.”

The challenging schedule

BYU hosts a pair of tournaments in the Fieldhouse in the preseason, highlighted by matches against Utah Valley, Marquette and Weber State. BYU travels to rival Utah on Sept. 19 and two days later has a rematch with Final Four opponent and defending national champion Stanford in Palo Alto. The Cougars also face Texas in the Shocker Volleyball Classic in Wichita, Kansas, in a rematch of the Elite 8 from last season. BYU begins WCC play with four of its first five matches on the road.

The Cougars had their usual high expectations in place from the beginning of fall workouts.

“We’re always building toward a national championship and so we’re excited to just keep building toward that,” Olmstead said. “We’ll get our new pieces with our old and see how this team jives and gels. I think everyone is motivated and working hard because they all want to build a winning tradition of their own. That’s why they came here and that’s why we brought them there to help us do that.”

Follow Darnell Dickson on Twitter @darnellwrites or e-mail him at ddickson@heraldextra.com.

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