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12th-ranked BYU volleyball gets back on track with win over rival Utah

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BYU’s Erin Livingston, celebrates after a point as they and Utah play a volleyball match in Provo on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. BYU won 3-1

BYU’s Erin Livingston, celebrates after a point as they and Utah play a volleyball match in Provo on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. BYU won 3-1

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BYU kept a determined Utah squad at bay Wednesday evening in Provo, needing four sets to take care of its rival — the first time this season that an opponent has taken the Cougars into the fourth game at Smith Fieldhouse.

The 12th-ranked Cougars handled the Utes by set scores of 25-13, 23-25, 25-19 and 25-16.

“I thought we came out with great energy,” BYU head coach Heather Olmstead said. “We were really dialed in to the game plan.”

BYU entered the contest following its first loss of the season last week at Washington State. However, the Cougars were riding a three-match win streak over Utah, with the Utes last getting the best of their rivals when they knocked them out of the 2019 NCAA tournament. 

Following its first setback of the year, Olmstead’s squad was eager to get back on track against Utah.

“We were pretty fired up just to get back after it quickly after that loss on Friday,” the BYU coach said. “We were stoked to just get back in the gym and practice for two days and re-center ourselves and refocus.”

The Cougars were able to do just that against a Utes’ squad that is still trying to get things on track.

Though Utah had beaten San Francisco in a sweep last weekend, the Utes came to Provo with a middling 4-4 record and winless on the road this season.

The Utes were hopeful they could buck that trend along with another that had seen them lose every match following a victory this season, but that was not meant to be Wednesday night in front of a Smith Fieldhouse record crowd of 5,528.  

“What a great environment,” Olmstead said. “We’re just excited everyone wants to come see our team play.”

The Cougars put on a show early in the match, pushing past the Utes with a 9-0 run after Utah had taken a 3-2 lead.

BYU faced little resistance from there, increasing its distance between itself and Utah in the first game and cruising to a comfortable one-set lead.

“I thought the players executed pretty well in the first set,” Olmstead said of her team. “That kind of threw Utah off a little bit.”

Utah wasn’t thrown off in the second set, though it began much where the first left off. The Cougars jumped ahead 4-0 aided by a pair of aces from sophomore libero Hannah Billeter.

Unlike the initial game though, BYU was challenged, falling behind by three midway through the set.

Utah held to a slim lead nearly the rest of the way, responding to every Cougars’ counterpunch to ultimately tie up the match and hand BYU its first set loss at Smith Fieldhouse this season.

In the third set, the Cougars again jumped out to a 4-0 lead, this time propelled by two aces from senior middle blocker Whitney McEwan-Llarenas.

This go around, BYU held on with an 8-2 run to close out the set after a late Utah surge tied things at 17.

BYU then finished the match off right where it started, earning a dominant fourth set victory. The Cougars scored 11 of the first 12 points, leaving little hope for the Utes the rest of the set as the Provo school coasted to its fourth consecutive win over its rival.

The Cougars had a trio of players who finished the night with double digit kills. Senior outside hitter Erin Livingston had 16, freshman outside hitter Claire Little added 14 and sophomore middle blocker Kate Prior earned 10.

BYU also finished the game with 12 total blocks, with Prior and freshman middle blocker Mia Lee ending the night with five and eight block assists, respectively.

When asked about her and Lee’s blocking prowess, Prior said it resulted from “communication and assertiveness. We’re always default assertive and me and Mia got that connection going, so it was fun.”

BYU will try to keep its assertiveness going when it resumes play in its second of three consecutive in-state matchups at UVU Friday before traveling to Logan to face Utah State Saturday in the Cougars’ final nonconference contest.

Utah will complete its nonconference schedule against another Beehive State foe when it welcomes Weber State to Salt Lake City Friday.