BYU volleyball took road to Final Four 'one match at a time'

BYU volleyball took road to Final Four 'one match at a time'

(Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

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PROVO — The coaches say it after every match, and the players repeat it as often as they are told to say it, too: just take it one game at a time.

As cliche as it’s become, BYU women’s volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead credits the mantra for his team’s success as the Cougars prepare for their first NCAA Final Four appearance in 21 years.

No. 12 BYU will face No. 2-seed Texas in the national semifinals Thursday at 5 p.m. MST at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. The winner of that match will face the winner of the Penn State and top-ranked Stanford semifinal Saturday at 5:30 p.m. MST.

The only finals that BYU's players were thinking about Wednesday as they boarded a plane following a brief sendoff from a handful of fans and supporters were the ones most of them had just taken to finish the fall semester. In fact, the Cougars have done a remarkable job of staying focused throughout the season, Olmstead said.

"I want to believe we're going to continue to get better," Olmstead said. "The girls have bought into that all season: get better every day in practice, little by little. That's what has impressed me about this group: they've never gotten ahead of themselves. They may have an opponent tomorrow, but they always focus on the opponent right in front of us."

The old cliche helps explain how a BYU (29-4) team that went 0-2 against ranked opponents in the regular season has defeated three-straight top 15 teams in the NCAA tournament, including a 3-0 sweep of No. 14 Nebraska in last Saturday’s regional final in Seattle.

Whether you feel like you belong or not, you do, because you made it. I feel like we put in the hard work and the sacrifice to get here as the other teams. We're just excited to play.

–BYU opposite Jennifer Hamson

Even as the cliche goes, Olmstead admitted it doesn’t always work with every team. But this year’s squad is different.

"I've been a coach here now for four years, and I can't think of a team like this," he added. "There have been multiple times I've kicked the kids out of the gym, where I say 'we're done. We're not getting any better.' But these kids have grinded it out and stayed true to that improvement."

That doesn't mean the Cougars haven't taken stock of where they are — playing alongside three longstanding traditional powers, including Thursday's match against a Texas (27-2) squad making its third-consecutive Final Four appearance and sixth in the past seven years.

The team has embraced the current mantra "Why not us?" and turned it into the official hashtag for all social media posts and regular team statements. There's belief in this Cougar camp, especially after reaching its third-straight Sweet 16 last week.

"Whether you feel like you belong or not, you do, because you made it," star opposite Jennifer Hamson said. "I feel like we put in the hard work and the sacrifice to get here as the other teams. We're just excited to play."

BYU is also ready to have a little fun on its business trip to Oklahoma City.

"It's so fun. I remember when I was younger, in high school, I knew Penn State and Stanford were so good," middle blocker Amy Boswell said. "We're playing with them, though, and we swept Nebraska. We've done well; it's not just some weird five-set match, or meeting a team with injured players. We've made it this far, and it is so fun. It's a dream come true to be playing in this spot."

BYU owns an all-time series record against the Longhorns at 9-6, but Texas beat the Cougars when the two programs last met, a 3-0 sweep in 2008.

To get past BYU, the Longhorns will have to do a lot of work at the net. The Cougars are the top-blocking team in the country at 3.87 blocks per set. BYU middle blocker Whitney Young is the top individual blocker in the nation with 1.92 blocks per set. It's one of the first things BYU works on in practice, and one of the top facets of the game the players have continued to improve throughout the season.

"It's something we practice a lot," said Boswell, who averages 1.67 blocks per set for second-most in the country. "Before almost every practice, we split up into blockers and liberos. We pride ourselves in it and try to keep it up."

The Cougars also know that a well-timed block can be the difference in a match, capable of instantly turning momentum around and starting a run.

"It definitely pumps us up," Hamson said. "It's great to stop the other teams' best shots right there. I love it."

Despite keeping focused on the next match, Olmstead said the team set a collective goal several months ago to be in this position on this weekend.

When the fourth-year head coach brought the team to its annual retreat in Park City on the second week of the season, they set some goals as a program. They wanted to circle a big one, a goal that he wasn't sure they should set: his team wanted a Final Four.

Now that they've reached that goal, don't think the Cougars are ready to stop, though.

"I believe they want more, and I don't say that thinking we're just going along for the ride," Olmstead said. "When these kids are competing, they are playing well. It's exciting when a plan comes together, and it's exciting for these kids that it has come together like this so far."

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