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PROVO — It was just one loss, but the timing of it could’ve seriously hampered BYU's volleyball season.
The Cougars, ranked No. 1 in the AVCA Coaches' Poll for all but the first three weeks of the season, suffered their only loss of the year in a 3-0 sweep at Loyola Marymount last week on the final day of the regular season.
The victory likely clinched an NCAA Tournament bid for the Lions, one of five schools from the West Coast Conference that will open the 64-team national team tournament this weekend at various sites around the country.
But one of those sites will be BYU — the Cougars stayed in the top-four nationally, securing the No. 4 overall seed and a chance to play in the friendly confines of the Smith Fieldhouse until the national semifinals Dec. 13 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
So now comes the rebound.
BYU will open the NCAA Tournament at 7 p.m. MT Friday against America East champion Stony Brook. The winner will play the winner of Utah (18-13) and Summit League champion Denver (27-2) in the second round Saturday night.
Both games will be played in Provo — which was the Cougars’ goal of taking the No. 1 ranking so late into the season.
"We're top-10 in attendance this year, and it’s a credit to our fans," BYU coach Heather Olmstead said. "The community and the university is excited to watch us play, and you can see the fire and emotion, the passion, that they play with.
"It's a good product they are putting out on the court. We’re excited that our students and fans get to come see another match."
Sure, last week wasn’t the way the Cougars (27-1) wanted to finish the regular season.
But the loss may ultimately prove beneficial in the end if it reveals something about the club that many outsiders view as a national title contender in Olmstead’s fourth season.
For all of its history and 31 NCAA Tournament appearances, BYU has never won a national title in women’s volleyball. The Cougars advanced to the championship match back in 2014, only to lose to then-No. 5 Penn State in Oklahoma City.
It’s better to learn from mistakes during the regular season than in the winner-take-all, single-elimination tournament.
“We’re not perfect, and that’s OK,” BYU libero Mary Lake said. “As long as we learn from that game and know areas that we want to improve, then we can move on from it fast and it will help us. We can’t be upset about it now. I don’t dwell on it, and I don’t think the other girls dwell on it. But if we learn from it, it will help us — and I think we are learning from it.”
This year might be a peak year for the Cougar spikers. With five-straight conference titles, BYU swept the end-of-season league awards and placed five players on the All-WCC first team. Senior outside hitter Roni Jones-Perry was named player of the year; Lake took defender of the year honors; middle blocker Heather Gneiting served up freshman of the year honors; and Olmstead was dubbed the coach of the year.
Senior setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich was also an All-WCC first-team player, as well as junior outside hitter McKenna Miller — even after missing the final four matches of the regular season with an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
“A strength of our team is that we deal with adversity well, and we deal with whatever is thrown at us,” Jones-Perry said. “We just focus on what we want to do with the cards we are given. Our team does a good job of managing and refocusing on what we want to do.”
The next task is Stony Brook, a contender in its own right. The Seawolves (21-8) are making their second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance after a 17-25, 25-14, 25-18, 21-25, 15-8 win over Albany in the American East title match. McKyla Brooks and Maria Poole average 2.98 and 2.44 kills per set, respectively, to lead Stony Brook to 17 wins in a row, and coach Kristin Belzung’s team won’t back down.
“BYU is a phenomenal program with a storied history,” said the second-year head coach, who spent four seasons at Wyoming prior to moving to New York. “We are excited for a trip to Provo to get to compete against one of the best teams in the country. Our group is ready to take on the challenge.”