There are five married players on the BYU volleyball team.
Whitney Bower is not one of them.
She’s still 17. And Bower, who — had she not graduated a year early would still be a senior in high school — is the setter who runs the show for the veteran 10th-ranked team in the nation.
“She’s a beast,” junior middle Kennedy Eschenberg said. “Even when she came in, right away you could just tell that she wanted to win and you can see that when she plays. She brings a fight and fiery, feisty spirit to the court. But she just wants to win and that’s really cool.”
BYU coach Heather Olmstead is not surprised.
“Whitney was born to do this,” Olmstead said simply. “Whitney was born to compete at a high level. She wants to win and she wants to win a national championship and she works every day towards that goal.”
Olmstead relates. She also started college volleyball at 17, turning 18 that November.
“I see a lot of similarities. She’s mature and was ready when she got here,” Olmstead said. “Carrying that pressure can be hard to do and she’s managing it really well.”
BYU All-American setter Mary Lake, who didn’t graduate early but was also a month from her 18th birthday when she started at BYU.
“She’s handling it like a champ,” Lake said.
Olmstead and Lake get it.
All-American senior outside hitter McKenna Miller shook her head in amazement.
“I forget that she’s 17 because she’s worked so hard and is really mature for her age,” Miller said. “She skipped her whole senior year and I forget that because she’s so smart, understands volleyball so well, she’s worked so hard, and I love having her.”
Miller, for that matter, was not surprised how well Bower is doing. And for example, when BYU swept at San Francisco on Saturday, the 5-foot-9 product of Nampa, Idaho, had five kills in seven errorless attempts to hit .714, had 28 assists, 10 digs and two blocks. Yet, despite her height — she jumps pretty well — Bower is averaging .55 blocks per set and is second on the team only to Lake in digs. She’s also tied with Miller for the team lead in aces with 35, more than her mother had as a freshman at BYU, but more on mom, the former Caroline Steuer, in a bit.
“She’s so young and she’s so good,” said Morgan Bower, Whitney’s sister. “It’s crazy.”
Miller recalled the summer after her freshman year when she was working a BYU camp. Bower was playing with her and Miller recalled that she said to the kid, “ ‘You’re really good, what grade are you going into?’ And she said, ‘I’m gonna be a freshman.’ And I was like, ‘What?! In high school. You’re joking?’ ”
“She was the best player in this gym and she just finished eighth grade. So I’m not surprised at all.”
Bower, who turns 18 on November 24, said her teammates have encouraged her from the get-go.
“They’re amazing,” Bower said. “They’re so supportive. Even if the set’s not there, they’re like, ‘You got this. You’ve got the next one.’ And that is so refreshing as a setter.”
Olmstead, a defensive specialist at Utah State and BYU’s setter coach, also has to remind herself that Bower is so young.
“She’s a joy to be around and one of those dream players to coach. Always wants feedback and always wants to get better,” Olmstead said. “I can be as hard on her as I want and I find myself having to hold back coaching her because I forget how young she is and how overwhelming this whole process can be. But she wants it all and wants to know everything.”
Bower enjoys being pushed.
“She’s tough on me but Heather is amazing,” Bower said with a giggle.
Bower, a product of Skyview High School and the Idaho Crush, plays fearlessly. She’s not afraid to fling a long, off-balance set, goes up strong on jousts, dumps and attacks with authority, and is vocal.
“It comes from Heather. She encourages me to get into uncomfortable situations so I can do better,” Bower said.
Already committed to BYU, during her junior year she figured it was time to go to Provo early.
“Obviously it was my decision,” Bower said. “My parents (Danny and Caroline) helped me out with it and were supporting me, and Heather and coaching staff were very passionate about it, so it was awesome.”
It was also awesome for Morgan. She’s a freshman DS — 17 months older — who is a couple of inches shorter but equally vivacious. According to the BYU bio notes, verified by their mom, Whitney has competed in wild-turkey-calling contests, while Morgan is a swan hunter and fly-fishing guide.
“Ever since she was born she was amazing,” Morgan said of her sister. “She always played up in club and was always younger than everyone else, but has always been a stud and dominated.”
Now roommates, they played together their entire club careers where they were coached by their mom, a former BYU outside hitter (1996-99) who was actually pregnant with Morgan — her oldest of seven children; Whitney is No. 2 — while playing in the NCAA Tournament. Danny Bower played basketball at BYU in 1998-99.
“There are so many things you want to boast about your own kids, but I’m going to tell you as a coach, from a coach’s standpoint. Whitney’s just always been special,” Caroline Bower said.
“She unique from the sense that she’s always been playing two to three ages up (in club) and she’s just a kid who was just very mature for her age and could handle a lot of pressure. She could handle the things that the volleyball world brings at her from an early age.
“You could categorize her as a bulldog. It doesn’t matter what the challenge is. She’s willing to accept it and excited about the next challenge. She’s always been like that.”
Caroline Bower said Whitney was “one of the funnest kids to coach.”
Not surprisingly, when asked what she wants to do in life, Whitney said without hesitation, “I want to be a coach.”
Coach on the floor will have to do for now.
Last year BYU had a remarkable season and made it to the NCAA semifinals.
This season the Cougars are tied with San Diego for the West Coast Conference lead, and stand 22-3, 13-1 in the league.
BYU lost twice in the preseason, to Marquette and Texas, and its only league blemish was to San Diego.
“Every play matters, every point matters, and we’re not taking anything for granted,” Bower said.
The coach, Caroline Bower, would expect nothing less.
“She takes volleyball very seriously. Volleyball’s been her life,” Caroline Bower said. “We’re a volleyball family and she’s grown up watching it, seeing it, wanting to do it and understands the BYU tradition and is excited about where it’s going to lead her.”