Running a 30-2 record and making another appearance in the Sweet 16, BYU’s women’s volleyball team consistently put five All-Americans on the floor last season.
Three of those talented players — Kennedy Eschenberg, Taylen Ballard-Nixon and West Coast Conference Player of the Year Kenzie Koerber — have moved on. Heather Olmstead and her coaching staff have recruited some good talent, but have key positions to fill at center blocker, opposite hitter, outside hitter and libero.
Much is expected of the Cougars, who were picked to win the WCC by league coaches on Wednesday. Last week, BYU earned a No. 10 ranking in the preseason AVCA poll.
Olmstead writes the day’s training schedule on a rolling whiteboard. After the release of the AVCA rankings, she wrote, “So what. Now what?”
“It’s an honor to have such consideration for our ghosts,” Olmstead said. “But we understand that we still have to do the work. We are interested in our ranking at the end of the year. It’s a four month process where we work on the little things to bring us to a big result at the end of the year.
Where were we?
BYU’s only loss in the regular season was to No. 4 Pitt. The Cougars cruised through the WCC game undefeated (18-0) and beat Boise State and Utah to win the program’s ninth trip to the Sweet 16 in the last 10 years. Against Purdue, BYU had a 14-10 advantage in the fifth set but couldn’t wrap it up and lost a heartbreaker.
Koerber was named a third-team All-American while Eschenberg and setter Whitney Bower earned honorable mention All-Americans.
The heart of the team is Bower, who is entering his fourth season as a starter. She leads BYU’s powerful offense and is also a formidable blocker and defensive player.
“As a setter, I need to have that connection with my teammates,” she said. “I learn their strengths and weaknesses and try to lead on and off the pitch. We have plenty of room to grow. They love volleyball and you can see that love pouring out of them. They have a growth mindset and know how to work hard.
Also back is 6-foot-5 senior middle tackle Heather Gneiting, another four-year-old starter who finished second on the team in blocks (1.01 per set) and hit .425. Junior Erin Livingston, who had 241 kills last season, is on course for a breakout season.
Aside from these three players, all other positions are open and competition has been fierce in the spring and summer.
“One of the challenges we’ve had is getting enough reps for everyone who’s going to play opening weekend,” Olmstead said. “As a coaching staff, we can sift through the competition and get a team to play against Ryder (Friday). It is an open competition. They lift each other up. We have a group of girls who want to play.
Senior Whitney Llarenas (6-3) may finally get her chance to start alongside Gneiting at center tackle, but she’s being pushed by 6-3 sophomore Bri Albright and 6-4 rookie Kate Prior.
Senior Kate Grimmer, who was first-team All-WCC last spring (2.94 kills per inning, .318 hitting percentage), will get a chance to fill the opposite hitter role.
6-3 freshman Eden Bower and sophomores Elyse Stowell (6-2) and Sophia Callahan (6-2) are also competing for reps at the batting spots. Eden Bower was an AVCA first-team All-American selection at Skyview High School in Idaho last season.
Starting Libero Madi Allen transferred to Washington this spring, so there’s a good battle there between returning defensive specialist Aria McComber, Saint Mary graduate transfer Kelsey Knudsen, seniors Abbey Dayton and Morgan (Bower) Clinger and rookie Hannah Billeter.
Wyoming transfer Abby Taylor and 6-1 rookie Briley Decker will support Whitney Bower at the passer.
BYU is hosting a pair of tournaments over the next two weeks, with matchups against Duke, Washington State, Cincinnati, rival Utah State and No. 6 Pitt highlighted. The Cougars also go on the road to play No. 9 Georgia Tech and No. 7 Ohio State.
“Everyone is really hungry to get back on the court and play volleyball at a high level,” Olmstead said. “With our competitiveness, we take our hat off to energy. We have to perform at a high level. Our girls understand the tradition of BYU volleyball and they want to be great.
BYU Women’s Volleyball
Five things to watch out for
Erin Livingston and Heather Gneiting saved valuable time training and playing in the USA volleyball program over the summer. Head coach Heather Olmstead has also gained valuable experience as an assistant for the USA U21 team which played in Mexico.
Passing is the key
The Cougars will face hard-serving and hard-hitting teams in the preseason, honing their serve-receiving and coming under fire. Developing these skills will be key to a successful season.
Pitt comes to Provo
Last year’s only regular season loss was to Pitt and the sixth-ranked Panthers travel to Smith Fieldhouse on September 3 for what could be a night to remember.
Welcome to Heck
Speaking of the Fieldhouse, BYU has an incredible home field advantage. In Olmstead’s seven seasons as head coach, the Cougars are 105-5 (95%) at home.
BYU is a Bower house
When Cougar basketball player Danny Bower and BYU volleyball star Caroline Steuer met and married in Provo in the 1990s, they had no idea they would provide a steady stream of players to the sports program. Whitney, Morgan and Eden will all play for the Cougars this season, with Alex a junior passer at Skyview, Idaho as well.