This week, BYU will face one of its toughest opponents of the season when it travels to Arizona to take on Grand Canyon, a team that has surpassed expectations with its 14-1 record, a record that has earned the school an impressive No. 5 national ranking.  

“When I was playing (volleyball), I just loved it. I fell in love playing it. I hated playing baseball. It just wasn’t that fun to me. And when I played volleyball, I was like, ‘This is fun.’ And if it’s fun, I’m going to keep doing it.” — BYU setter Heath Hughes

The matches against the Antelopes will be a reunion of sorts for Cougars’ starting setter Heath Hughes, who transferred from Grand Canyon this offseason after playing four years for the private school in the desert.

Hughes said at the end of his fourth year with the Antelopes that he felt his volleyball career was over. “I was kind of just accepting that I was going to be done. There were new guys coming in. … Four years was enough for me.” 

But then the Florida native had a change of heart, deciding he wanted to capitalize on his extra year of eligibility. He felt it would be a good experience for him to play elsewhere and wanted to compete at a school where he could be on a scholarship — something GCU could no longer offer him. 

Within a couple of weeks after entering the transfer portal, BYU had scooped up the fifth-year setter, giving the Cougars some needed experience at the position. 

“(Heath) was interested immediately,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said about recruiting Hughes. “He had played at BYU as an opponent (and) loved it; loved the environment. He came out on a visit and was sold pretty immediately with all the resources; the environment; the team; the guys; and it was just a no-brainer there and (an) easy sell if you would say it. And he’s fit in … just perfectly.”

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Growing up, Hughes struggled to initially find the right fit for himself athletically, playing baseball and hating it. As he neared high school, he gradually became enamored by his twin sister’s sport: volleyball. 

“When I was playing (volleyball), I just loved it,” he said. “I fell in love playing it. I hated playing baseball. It just wasn’t that fun to me. And when I played volleyball, I was like, ‘This is fun.’ And if it’s fun, I’m going to keep doing it.”

He began playing volleyball competitively in high school at the club level. Hughes says that he always knew that he wanted to play collegiately in the MPSF, where he could go up against some of the nation’s best competition week in and week out. He did not, however, want to attend a California school, fearing greater financial burdens due to the state’s high cost of living. So when GCU came calling, he quickly accepted the school’s offer. 

Four years and two degrees later (an undergrad in health care administration and a master’s degree in business administration) and Hughes was ready for a change. 

When he entered the transfer portal, he was contacted in a variety of ways, including on Instagram and Snapchat, by various schools. Hughes, however, wanted to come to BYU but didn’t know if the feeling would be mutual. 

“I didn’t know how much interest I would get,” he said. “Honestly, BYU is where I wanted to go. … I wasn’t for sure that it would even happen. But when I got the email and phone call from them, I was like, ‘No way!’”

Two days after entering the portal, BYU assistant coach Devin Young reached out to Hughes and helped coordinate his visit to Provo. 

Since coming to BYU, the school has really grown on Hughes, who has enjoyed the relationships he’s gained, the fan support and even the weather — having the opportunity to truly experience snow for the first time in his life. 

The experienced veteran came to BYU with the attitude of helping where he could and expecting only what he worked to gain. 

“I just kind of came in with no expectations; worked as hard as I could,” Hughes said. “So I was kind of going in like I’m the freshman, new guy, who has to earn his spot. Which is what I really honestly had to do.”

BYU has benefitted from Hughes’ unique height for his position, his 6-foot-7 frame allowing him to block and even attack at times for the Cougars. The versatile setter should have a chance to use those skills to help his new team beat his old team this week. 

Though the Antelopes’ impressive season has seemed improbable, it has not taken Hughes off guard. 

“Every year that I was at GCU, we got better and better and better and better,” he said. “It’s the same group of guys. So I mean, I would hope that they would be where they’re at now.”

Hughes has nothing but love for his former team, though he’d really like to beat them when he returns to Phoenix this week. 

“I’m excited to see all my old teammates,” he said. “I don’t think I have the typical transfer mindset. A lot of transfers have resentment towards the school. I mean, I still love everyone there and love the team. So it’s just going to be a lot of fun. I definitely want to win, obviously. But it’s like coming back to my old home type of situation.”

Hughes has a new home now and is quite content with it. He even feels that if he could do things over he might choose to play his whole career at BYU. 

Returning to GCU may be a homecoming for the Floridian, but that won’t be his focus. Most important will be that he earns a couple more wins in his final go-round at Grand Canyon University Arena.

BYU’s Heath Hughes tips the ball during match at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News