‘Confident but also humble’: How No. 4 seed BYU is approaching NCAA volleyball tournament
The Cougars host Weber State, a team it has never lost to, in the first round of the tourney Friday night in Provo
A deep run into the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament is both a mental and physical challenge. For No. 16 BYU, the Cougars psyche will be tested first.
BYU (24-6) will face Weber State (21-9) in Friday night’s first-round match at the Smith Fieldhouse (7 p.m. MST, ESPN+). The Cougars are 63-0 against the Wildcats, including 30-0 in Provo. The winner will face the winner between Georgia (19-11) and Arizona State (26-6) on Saturday for the right to play in the Sweet 16.
“We are just focused on being at our very best against a team that is going to be very scrappy and has nothing to lose. We must also have that same underdog mentality that anybody can beat anybody — and that means we can beat Weber State.” — BYU coach Heather Olmstead
“We want to be confident but also humble. In sports, there are always unique situations,” said BYU coach Heather Olmstead of the Cougars’ perfect slate against the Wildcats. “We are just focused on being at our very best against a team that is going to be very scrappy and has nothing to lose. We must also have that same underdog mentality that anybody can beat anybody — and that means we can beat Weber State.”
This is BYU’s 12th-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and when the Cougars are home during tournament time, they have been tough to beat (32-6). The Cougars are 12-1 at the Smith Fieldhouse this season with the lone defeat coming against Kansas on Nov. 17. BYU responded with a road sweep at West Virginia (3-0) and TCU (3-0) to secure a No. 4 NCAA tourney seed and hosting rights to the first and second rounds.
“It was crucial for our confidence to know that we can go on the road and keep proving to ourselves that we can be tough, united, professional and take care of business,” Olmstead said. “This is what it’s all about, performing at a high level knowing that we were up for hosting a bid.”
The Cougars finished 13-5 and in third place during their inaugural season in the Big 12.
“We have felt a new sense of appreciation for how hard it is to win (in the Big 12),” Olmstead said. “We are just learning what it takes to keep our focus at this level, home or away. Wins are difficult to come across and to grind these out in the Big 12 makes them even sweeter.”
When it comes to winning, Olmstead is an expert. In her nine seasons at BYU, she is 237-55. The .871 winning percentage is the highest among all NCAA DI coaches who have coached two or more seasons.
Olmstead has BYU up to No. 3 in all-time victories with 1,376. The Cougars are just four wins behind No. 2 UCLA and 31 shy of No. 1 Nebraska. Under her watch, BYU has reached the Sweet 16 five times, including the Final Four in 2018. In addition, her program is ranked in the top 25 for the 166th consecutive week.
“It’s all about the players,” Olmstead said. “It really is about the talent and training these players up as best as you can. We have players that want to be great on and off the court. They take their craft seriously. They feel passion about being as good as they can.”
Leaning on leaders
BYU is led by a trio of veterans who started all 30 games and earned Big 12 first-team honors. Entering Friday’s match, senior setter Whitney Bower has a school record 4,524 career assists. Senior outside hitter Erin Livingston has 1,258 career kills and grad-student middle blocker Whitney McEwen-Llarenas has amassed 209 kills, 452 total attacks and 44 digs in her final and most productive season at BYU. They also received a boost from the new kid in town — freshman middle blocker Mia Lee, who was named to the Big 12 All-Rookie Team.
“They are players who love BYU and have extended their careers as long as they could,” said Olmstead of her older leaders. “Mia is a great communicator on the court. They are the ones doing most of the talking in the huddle. They have done a great job keeping the energy where it needs to be.”
Weber State head coach Jeremiah Larsen is also in his ninth season. Among his 152 career victories includes a dramatic come-from-behind 3-2 win against Montana State last Friday to win the Big Sky Conference tournament. Larsen will oppose Olmstead and the Cougars in a familiar place. He was the backup setter on BYU’s national championship men’s volleyball team in 2001.
“It’s the same thing we’ve been working on — how do we handle mistakes and how do we handle adversity because BYU is going to give us a ton of adversity,” said Larsen as he prepared his second Weber State team for the NCAA Tournament. “We’re gonna have to be able to continue to build on what we’ve just learned about ourselves and who we are.”
Win or go home
The unpredictability of sports can sometimes defy reality and deliver a surprise outcome. Most of the time, however, it confirms it. While BYU’s 63-0 record against Weber State is impressive, it is also history. The present is now, with the future hanging in the outcome. No matter how they got here, or how different they may be, each team needs the same thing to advance to Saturday — one single victory.
The magic of the postseason is here.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is a play-by-play announcer and show host for BYUtv/ESPN+. He co-hosts “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com and is the author of the children’s book “C is for Cougar” available at deseretbook.com.