Top-ranked and unbeaten BYU relies on talent, balance, experience

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BYU's Mary Lake lunges for a dig against San Diego/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The BYU Cougars, which hadn’t been ranked first since 1986, has been No. 1 in the AVCA Division I Coaches Poll since September 10 and at 16-0 shows no signs of giving up the top spot.

“I think we have to stay focused on the task at hand,” BYU fourth-year coach Heather Olmstead said after her Cougars improved to 6-0 in the West Coast Conference by beating San Diego this past Friday.

“Right now that’s getting into the gym on Monday, and getting ready for another road trip. We really just have to keep getting better. We have to keep finding ways to shore up certain areas of our game, and be challenged. Getting better is always a goal of ours, and to challenge ourselves.”

BYU, which plays at San Francisco on Thursday and goes to Santa Clara on Saturday, got 60 of the 64 first-place AVCA votes this week. The others went to No. 2 Stanford, which BYU beat in five on August 31. BYU also has victories this season over USC, Utah and Marquette. BYU and Pittsburgh of the ACC (17-0) are the only unbeaten teams left in NCAA Division I.

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BYU’s Roni Jones-Perry (left) and Mary Lake celebrate a point against USD/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The Cougars have a mix of experience and youth in the lineup, starting with senior outside hitter Roni Perry-Jones, a VolleyballMag.com second-team All-American last year certain to be a first-teamer this year. The product of Jordan, Utah, is averaging 4.67 kills per set, hitting .379 and is in the hunt for national player of the year.

“Roni is just a good representative of BYU.” Olmstead said. “She works hard, she’s a competitor, she’s kind to people, she embodies everything that we want in a student-athlete, and a BYU volleyball player.

“We’re super-glad that she’s on our team, and I think the greatest thing about Roni is she’s humble, she works hard, and she keeps wanting to get better.”

Jones-Perry competed in gymnastics and softball before settling on volleyball.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that she works really hard for her skill and she works really hard to be a consistent and dominant outside,” said BYU junior libero Mary Lake, herself one of the best at her position in the nation.

“She is always an example to me and to a lot of girls on our team, she works really hard every single day, and someone who brings our team together and loves connecting. That part of her is just as important as being a good volleyball player is being a good teammate.”

Jones-Perry, the WCC player of the week three times this season who has a team-leading 21 service aces and 35 blocks, said the leadership role simply evolved.

“It’s kind of interesting, because it just naturally happens. I get closer to the girls, and I get more comfortable stepping into that leadership role a little bit more, but our team doesn’t really have super-vocal leaders,” Jones-Perry said. “We all just trust each other, and we all have a good team bond. I feel like everybody’s role shifts a little bit, but altogether we’re just fighting for each other and trusting each other.”

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BYU sophomore Kennedy Eschenberg hits a quick set from Lyndie Haddock-Eppich/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Senior setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich, averaging 11.21 assists, has an impressive array of hitters at her disposal. The other outside is junior McKenna Miller (3.25 kills per set while hitting .304), the middles are 6-foot-4 freshman Heather Gneiting (1.87 kills, .402, 64 blocks) and 6-5 sophomore Kennedy Eschenberg (198 kills, .372, 75 blocks), and freshman right side Madelyn Robinson (1.78 kills, .342, 26 blocks). And the 5-10 Haddock-Eppich had 40 kills of her own and is hitting .429 and also has 45 blocks.

“She’ll just jump up and save a really junky pass by any of us, and get our hitters in rhythm, and they’ll go put the ball away,” Jones-Perry said of Haddock-Eppich.

Lake was an AVCA honorable-mention All-American in 2017. The product of Palm Springs, Calif., averages 4.02 digs/set. 

“Mary Lake is obviously awesome,” Jones-Perry said. “She gets so many balls up that are just out of the world.”

BYU is hitting .339 as a team. The 6-1 Miller, a product of Murrieta, Calif., hit .249 last season.

“McKenna is just a joy to coach,” Olmstead said. “She’s a competitor, and she wants to get better as well, she’s always trying to find ways to up her game, she’s serving for us this year, which is a new role for her. She has a lot of fun when she plays, and it’s nice to keep it loose for us on the court when she’s having fun.”

A big key, of course, is the youthful tandem of Eschenberg and Gneiting.

“They’re both a big blocking presence at the net,” Olmstead said “ …  and because they’re big, and they jump, they can score for us.”

In 2014, BYU made a big run to the NCAA championship match before losing to Penn State. The key cog was 6-foot-7 Jennifer Hamson. Earlier this season her younger sister, 6-7 Sara, was lost to a knee injury. Robinson, just 5-10, has stepped into the opportunity.

“It’s a new position for her. She’s always played outside, but she’s taken advantage of the spot that’s available on the right side and she’s stepped in well,” Olmstead said. “She’s got a good arm, jumps well, and every day keeps getting better and better on the block and that’s just really encouraging. She works hard, she competes, she is really composed for a freshman, I am so happy with her play.”

BYU finished 30-3 in 2017, its season ending with a five-set loss at Kentucky in the regional semifinals. If the Cougars get through the WCC without a loss, they would likely get one of the coveted top-four NCAA Tournament seeds, which means they could be the host team for all four rounds leading into the NCAA Championship in Minneapolis. BYU’s home, the Smith Fieldhouse, is notoriously difficult on away teams, not only because of the average attendance of 2,458, but also the altitude of 4,553 feet. The Cougars are 90-3 at the Smith Fieldhouse since losing to Gonzaga in Nov. 2011. 

“I think just keep getting better,” Jones-Perry said. “Every day that we get to come into the gym and play, we just need to see how much better we can get, and after that, just focus on what we want to do. Everything will take care of itself.”

Being a host team would certainly give the BYU Cougars an opportunity to make another deep NCAA run.

“That would be awesome, and we’re always looking to put ourselves in the best possible position for the NCAA tournament,” Lake said. “We don’t bank on playing at home or think that it’s expected or that we deserve anything.

“We’re just excited to play, and if that means playing away with a tough crowd, then that’s what we’re preparing for right now this season. Whatever happens, we’re ready for it.”

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