After making it to the NCAA Final Four last year, the BYU volleyball team had some growing pains early this season. Now, riding an 18-match winning streak, the Cougars are ranked No. 8 in the nation and are serious national championship contenders once again.
The Cougars (25-3) begin what they hope is another Final Four trek tonight at 5 when they host No. 16 Arizona (16-9) in a second-round NCAA West Regional match at the Smith Fieldhouse. BYU earned a bye in the first round of the 48-team NCAA tourney, while Arizona beat Loyola Marymount (15-13, 9-15, 15-6, 15-3) to advance.The Cougars returned All-American setter Charlene Johnson from last season's 29-3 club, but they lost three all-WAC starters to graduation. As a result, BYU dropped three early matches - including two at home - while the young team worked out a few kinks.
Sophomore Gale Oborn (3.64 kills per match) and freshman Angie Walker (4.82 kills per match) became the best outside hitting tandem in the WAC in leading the Cougars to a 13-1 mark and another conference title. Senior Marrianne Clark leads the team in hitting percentage (.256) while Johnson (12.36 assists per match) is once again putting up All-American numbers.
"Charlene deserves huge accolades," BYU coach Elaine Michaelis said. "As the season went on she got better and better. If she's not the premier player in the nation, she's one of the premier players."
Arizona may have nine losses this season, but all of its setbacks have been to nationally-ranked opponents. The Wildcats have also beaten four ranked foes. Sophomore Barbara Bell leads the Wildcats in kills per game with 4.53. BYU beat Arizona last year in the NCAA Western Regional semifinals.
"Arizona is a fine team," Michaelis said. "They have basically the same team as we played in the regionals last year . . . They are a very physical, athletic team.
The winner of the BYU-Arizona match will play the winner of New Mexico-USC match in a regional semifinal Thursday. The regional finals will be Friday with the NCAA Final Four set for Dec. 15-17 in Austin, Texas.