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When BYU started spring practice last month, it was doing so with an eye on a new look in 2019.
The Cougars, who lost to Stanford in the NCAA Division I Championship semifinals, lost five seniors, not the least of which were star outside hitter Roni Perry Jones and setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich.
But unflappable coach Heather Olmstead said her team — which finished 31-2 in 2018 — was excited to get back on the court.
“Like every team we’re adjusting to life without the seniors,” said Olmstead, who stands 118-13 after four seasons at the helm — 66-6 in the West Coast Conference — which at .901 is highest winning percentage among Division I coaches.
“We’re figuring out who the 2019 team is going to be, but it’s going pretty well,” she said.
Jones-Perry had 506 kills for the Cougars, more than double her closest teammate. That was outside McKenna Miller, who had 250 before being lost to a knee injury late in the season. She will be a senior in the fall.
Also back are spectacular senior libero Mary Lake, and both middles, 6-foot-4 sophomore Heather Gneiting and 6-foot-5 junior Kennedy Eschenberg, and the outside who picked up a lot of Miller’s playing time, sophomore Madelyn Robinson.
Olmstead, an assistant who took over from her brother, Shawn, now the BYU men’s coach, recruited all those players who led the program to its remarkable success the past decade.
“We were in it together. All the recruits we got were both of ours,” she said. “We loved all the kids we got and we’ve been in it together since ’11. That’s why taking over was so natural because I’d recruited all those kids. I wanted them just like he did.”
An incoming class will contribute right away, including 6-1 freshman opposite Kate Grimmer, a left-handed product of Queen Creek, Ariz.; and three outsides, freshman Erin Anderson, from Corona, Calif.; freshman Morgan Johnson from Temecula, Calif.; and Abbey Dayton, from Ladera Ranch, Calif.
Grace Wee is a libero from Kaneohe, Hawai’i, and freshman libero Morgan Bower, who graduated high school in Idaho in December, and Salt Lake Community College transfer DS Callie Whitney, both enrolled in the spring.
“It’s a big class and we’re expecting them to come in and make a difference and help us get some depth on the pins,” Olmstead said.
The newcomers should hope they become part of the history at BYU, where players get better throughout their careers.
A good example was Jones-Perry, who improved every season and then exploded as a junior, becoming a national player-of-the-year candidate.
“We have a great coaching staff that obviously trains them up, but we have kids that have a growth mindset and they understand that we’re going to ask them to be a learner,” Olmstead said. “That’s a big deal in the classroom, on the court, in the community.
“We want them to just love learning and I think when you’re here to learn and you’re excited about it, you get better in whatever you’re trying to improve at. We have kids who are humble and they understand that if they can’t do something, it’s that they can’t do it yet. So we’re really big on getting them to buy in and seeing them get better. Getting better is addicting.”
BYU will certainly be the WCC favorite again next year. The Cougars went to the 2014 NCAA final, got swept in the third round in 2015 to Nebraska, fell to Texas in five in the third round in 2016, and in 2017 lost in five in the third round to Kentucky. So BYU is always knocking on the door.
“We’re always building. We’re always building towards winning a national championship, whatever that means, whether we get it or not, but it’s part of the journey and the process for these kids in terms of maturing and becoming adults,” Olmstead said.
“We’re always building every year, so every year we feel like we have a chance to be as good as we can. That’s to be determined, of course, depending on how our team chemistry meshes and comes together and how hard we work and how we focus.
“But I think we have a chance to keep building off the success we had last year and crack that national championship. We’re gonna keep trying.”