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Jaren Wilkey, Brigham Young University
The BYU women's volleyball team prepares for their national semi-final match against Texas at the NCAA Women's Volleyball Championships held in Oklahoma City, Okla.

OKLAHOMA CITY

Brigham Young University’s women’s volleyball team delivered a shiny Christmas gift to Cougar fans — an unexpected run to the NCAA national championship.

After coming into the 64-team NCAA tournament unseeded and largely unheralded, the Cougars staged volleyball magic. They upset several high-seeded teams, culminating in a historic victory in the tournament semifinals against Texas.

Their straight set win against the Longhorns secured a spot in the Dec. 20 national championship against powerful Penn State University on national television at Oklahoma’s Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Nittany Lions, winners of six of the past eight national championships, proved too strong for the upstart Cougars, winning in straight sets (21-15, 24-26, 14-15).

Despite dropping the title game, the team’s run through the NCAA tournament made women’s volleyball the “it” sport on campus for a few weeks. Even as BYU prepared for a football bowl game and several key men’s basketball games, much of the fan talk centered on the volleyball squad and their trek to Oklahoma City.

“We’ve been so grateful to come this far,” said middle blocker Amy Boswell after the game. “I know our fans have been unbelievable. The fact [is] that no one expected us to make it this far except for our team and our fans and those who supported us.”

Coach Shawn Olmstead was, of course, disappointed to fall one win short of a national championship. Still, the team’s run offered much to enjoy, build upon and even learn from.

“I’ve been unbelievably impressed with what these girls have accomplished,” he told the Church News. “They did something pretty spectacular.”

BYU’s 2014 season gleaned several team and individual honors. The Cougars earned their automatic bid into the NCAA tournament after winning the West Coast Conference.

Coach Olmstead, a returned missionary and a married father of three children, was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association Division 1 National Coach of the Year.

Meanwhile, three Cougars earned All-America honors. Senior hitter Jennifer Hamson was selected to the first team, while teammates Alexa Gray and Amy Boswell earned second team and honorable mention honors, respectively.

The team wants to become regulars in the annual tournament’s Final Four. Several key players return next season and hope to make an encore appearance in the championship game. Still, the Cougars will surely miss the 6-foot-7-inch Hamson, a once-in-a-generation athlete who excelled on both the school’s basketball and volleyball courts.

“It’s been amazing,” she said following the final game in a Cougar uniform. “I’ve had so much fun playing with so many teammates and coaches. ... I relish every moment of it now that it’s over.”

“I will always cherish my relationship with each of these players,” said Coach Olmstead, “we don’t have a selfish kid on the team.”

jswensen@deseretnews.com @JNSwensen

The LDS Church News is an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The publication's content supports the doctrines, principles and practices of the Church.