PROVO — BYU freshman Mary Lake didn't come to BYU under ideal circumstances, but has risen to become a vital component to the volleyball team's success.
The No. 13-seeded Cougars travel to take on No. 4 Texas this Friday, with the winner advancing to the round of eight in the NCAA tournament. The match will mark the Cougars' fifth straight run to the round of 16, an accomplishment made possible by well-rounded team play, of which Lake has certainly played her part at the libero position.
"Mary's been phenomenal. She's the heart and soul of our team," appraised BYU coach Heather Olmstead. "She's the energizer bunny, she's the communicator — she's always that spark, when we need it. She's a really good volleyball player, too...she's really doing it all for us."
Arriving at her current role hasn't come easy for the freshman, who enrolled at BYU this past January instead of waiting for the summer or fall semesters. The reason was due to an ACL injury she sustained just prior to her senior season at Palm Springs High School.
Lake worked to rehab her ACL throughout her first semester, finally feeling ready to go at the end of spring, although the process wasn't easy.
"It was like the hardest thing I've ever done," Lake said. "But I look back on it and just think that it made me stronger and it made me appreciate volleyball...to come back and play a sport, not just because of convenience — I had to work to play volleyball and so I appreciate it a lot more now."
Her greater appreciation of the sport and her opportunity have become rapidly apparent throughout her first season. The 5-foot-7 freshman has set a BYU record for digs on the season (517) while providing consistent and solid leadership to the Cougars' backline.
Such is the role of a libero — a position that isn't even allowed to swing over the net on the front row, but is vital in catalysing those big swings and scoring opportunities. It's a key role that often goes unnoticed by casual volleyball fans, much like the role of an offensive line for a football team.
"She's a critical part of what we're doing and she's done a great job," Olmstead said.
When presented with praise for her play, Lake is quick to deflect all of it — quickly crediting her teammates and coaches.
"It sounds really cliché but I just think of it as a team and winning game-by-game," she said. "And if that means I have to dig a lot of balls to win a game, then I do that. But I've never had a determined goal to set goals or anything. I just want to play volleyball."
Lake's resurgence hasn't come without challenges. Even though her ACL injury is in the rearview mirror, she's encountered typical freshman struggles this season, including the competitive level of play at the college level.
In rising above whatever challenges she's endured, Lake quickly credits her teammates, particularly senior middle blockers Amy Boswell and Whitney Howard.
"Honestly, they got me (through.) Not from a mental rut, but from being freaked out and reminding me that, 'Hey, it's volleyball,'" Lake said. "They were really like the moms to me to guide me through (the season.) Everyone gets shaken, but I really don't think those two do, because they've been through it all already."
BYU will take on Texas this Friday at 2 p.m. MST time. The match will be televised live on ESPNU with the winner advancing to take on the winner of Michigan (12) vs. Creighton (unseeded) the following Saturday at 6 p.m.