BYU women's volleyball: Underdog Cougars impressively return to the Sweet 16
Matt Gade, Deseret News
PROVO — No returning All-Americans. No home-court advantage. No problem for the BYU women’s volleyball team.
Playing on the road last week in the opening two rounds of the NCAA tournament, the Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16 with a five-set win over Arizona State and a three-set win over host Hawaii.
Unseeded BYU will next take on No. 6-seeded USC at the Galen Center in Los Angeles this Friday at 8 p.m. MST, with the winner slated to face Kansas (No. 14) or Washington (No. 3) in the Elite Eight Saturday night.
As a result of their opening-round victories, the Cougars find themselves in exactly the same position they were in a year ago — the Sweet 16 — but they got there this season without last year's stars and without playing tournament games inside the friendly confines of the Smith Fieldhouse.
“I don’t know if I expected us to be in this position at the start of the year, but it’s a credit to the girls and all the work they’ve put in, their fight and their resilience,” said coach Shawn Olmstead. “We’ve had a lot of players really rise to the occasions to overcome a lot of the challenges we had coming into the year.”
Chief among the challenges facing this year’s team was replacing first-team All-American Jen Hamson, along with standout middle blocker Nicole Warner and setter Heather Hannemann.
The 6-foot-7 Hamson would have been entering her final year on this year’s team, but opted to focus completely on basketball and put off her senior season with the volleyball team until 2014.
“You can’t replace Jen Hamson with anyone specific because there is no one that can do the things she does,” Olmstead said. “What has happened is others stepping up, doing things a bit different, but learning to have a lot of the same success and making things happen like Jen did.”
Junior college transfer Tambre Haddock is a prime example of players stepping in and rising to the occasion. The 6-foot Longmont, Colo., star finished second on the team in kills with 401 and has been a model of hard work, according to Olmstead.
"Tambre has been amazing for us this year and has really embodied the work ethic of this team and the determination to rise above most expectations," he said. "Tambre started to emerge early in the year and has been one of our top performers."
Haddock has joined with sophomore Alexa Gray — who leads the team in kills — and Kathryn LeCheminant to form a formidable front line. Other top contributors include freshman Whitney Young, senior Jessica Jardine and junior Hannah Robison.
BYU endured a tough preseason — losing two of its first three matches — before hitting its stride at the start of conference play with a straight-set victory over then No. 2-ranked San Diego.
"Up until that game we talked a lot about how good we could be, but I think it was that match where we really showed the potential of this team," Olmstead said. "I think that win gave us a lot of confidence and I really regard it as this year's turning point."
There have been some setbacks, but Olmstead believes the team is playing at its best at the most important time.
"We almost played a perfect match against Hawaii and we're obviously hoping that continues against a very good USC team this Friday," he said. "I think this is probably the toughest team we've faced. It's on their home court, but I like this team. I like their ability to step up and overcome everyone's expectations. I like our chances.
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