Few teams had a better second half of the 2016 season than BYU.
Second-year coach Heather Olmstead’s team won 13 in a row before falling in five — 16-14 in the fifth — at Texas in the NCAA Tournament regional semifinal.
“The way our team came together, to win the West Coast Conference, to get to play two matches at home in the (NCAA) tournament, and then have the match we did in the sweet 16, I couldn’t be more proud of the team and the way that they fought the whole year and it was just really remarkable,” Olmstead said.
BYU, which finished 29-4, 16-2 in the WCC, won its first nine matches, including victories over NCAA teams Ohio State, Boise State and Missouri, before losing to rival Utah.
Then, after winning five in a row to start WCC play, the Cougars lost in three at San Diego, one of the nation’s hottest teams early in the season. And after bouncing back with a couple of victories, BYU was upset at Portland in five.
That might have been a catalyst, however, to the stretch run.
While the team had a senior leader in energetic 6-4 middle Amy Boswell, a big key was young players, including sophomore outside Veronica Jones-Perry and some freshmen, including libero Mary Lake and outside McKenna Miller, who led the team in kills with 447 and had 52 blocks.
Was Olmstead surprised at how well the two freshmen from California played?
“People have asked me that a lot and I wasn’t because I recruited them,” said Olmstead, an assistant to her brother Shawn for four years — including BYU’s trip to the 2014 NCAA final — before taking over as head coach.
“We knew they were special. I wasn’t surprised how well Mary Lake translated into our game. She’s just the heart and soul of our team. She was the Energizer bunny, the communicator and a really good volleyball player on top of that.
“She reads the game well, she’s quick and she’s a vocal leader, which is what you need out of a libero in the backcourt.
“And then McKenna Miller, she’s got such a great arm, a powerful arm, and from match one, against Utah Valley, she had 13 kills and we knew she was ready for this level. I was really impressed with the way she came in and managed the pressure and did her job and did it fantastic.”
“I think for us we were fortunate that we had two fifth-year senior middles (in Boswell and Whitney Young Howard),” Olmstead said. “ … We had a mix of old and new and that worked for us, but it worked better than we thought. I don’t know that in the beginning of the season we thought we would win 29 matches. So to win 29 matches is just phenomenal.”
Two incoming freshmen should make an immediate impact, 6-2 outside Taylen Ballard from Clovis, Calif., and Sara Hamson from Lindon, Utah, the 6-7 younger sister of Jen Hamson, the star of that 2014 BYU team now in the WNBA.
They enter a program that was oh, so close this past December as BYU’s loss to Texas, of course, was to the team that made it to the NCAA championship match.
BYU fell behind that night 0-2, rallied to win the third and fourth sets, and then took a 5-0 lead in the fifth. The Cougars were up 11-5 when Texas caught fire and tied the set at 12.
BYU went up 14-12, but Texas, awfully tough to beat at home, rallied again.
“It was a great match. Phenomenal volleyball. Anyone who watched that match, you just have to feel good about the way that we played and the way that our kids left everything out on the floor,” said Olmstead, whose team was ranked No. 8 in the final AVCA poll.
“They were so exhausted, mentally and physically — as they should be — and I was so proud of them and their effort. But it just didn’t go our way at the end.”