When we last left the BYU women's volleyball team at the Smith Fieldhouse in mid-September, the Cougars had concluded the preseason by watching starting outside hitter Caroline Steuer crumple to the court with a major knee injury. BYU was left to wonder what the defense of their Western Athletic Conference championship would be like.
If Thursday night's three-game sweep of WAC peer Colorado State is any indication, the eighth-ranked Cougars should cruise through conference play without any major speed bumps. Some are suggesting - and BYU coach Elaine Michaelis can't dispute - that the Cougars may be hard pressed to lose a game against WAC foes, let alone drop a match."It could happen at Utah - they're tough up there this year," said Michaelis, whose team's four loses have come against teams ranked first, second, third and ninth.
A lost match - or even a lost game - wasn't much of a threat Thursday against CSU, a team that returned all six starters from the previous season and was considered the strongest challenger to BYU in the WAC Mountain Division. The battle was expected to be close, as the Cougars hosted a 20th-ranked Ram team averaging an even .300 hitting percentage and on an impressive eight-match winning streak.
But BYU dominated, winning 15-4, 15-10, 15-8 while hitting a .326 percentage compared to CSU's paltry .038.
"We controlled the game basically with our serving," said Michaelis, as the Rams gave up seven aces and committed unforced errors while appearing overwhelmed against the highest-ranked opponent they've faced this season.
BYU amassed an attack percentage of .481 in the first game and .400 in the third, and Michaelis was willing to overlook a .143 hitting percentage in the second, given that the Cougars held on to claim the middle game and tallied nine blocks to boot.
Helen Hjorth (.429) and Korie Rogers (.400) led the Cougars in percentage, while Amy Steele Gant logged 14 kills and Hjorth had a team-high 12 digs. BYU as a team finished with seven aces against CSU.
Improving to 11-4 overall and 3-0 in the WAC, the Cougars are on a modest six-match winning streak and have lost only one game during those six 00 matches. CSU drops to 12-3 overall and 2-1 in the league.
"Our team was so excited. . . . This was the test to see how we could handle a strong team without Caroline," said Gant, the BYU All-America who pooh-poohed her personal game Thursday but credited the likes of Hjorth's hitting and Andrea Petrilli's defense against CSU.
Meanwhile, Steuer has not given up hope on returning this season. The sophomore starter has postponed the inevitable surgery on her damaged anterior cruciate ligament and is trying to get her knee strong enough to play - with a brace - by the end of the regular season. She's jogging and playing pepper games on the sidelines during practice, but Michaelis knows the main test will be when she attempts lateral movement on the court.
The Cougar coach is happy how her players have responded to Steuer's absence so far. "They didn't try to cover for her. Instead, they just on did their own jobs better," she said, mindful that the Y. team has focused on a recent emphasis on improved defense. "We're controlling the momentum and cutting down on the lapses."
BYU concludes the week hosting Wyoming at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Smith Fieldhouse.