PROVO — Rolled eyes and groans is the response you'll usually get when asking most players of BYU's No. 7-ranked women's volleyball team about last year's final game, and for good reason.
It was the regional semifinal match of the NCAA Tournament, with the then-No. 13-seeded Cougars staging a big comeback effort against No. 4-seed Texas, only to come up just short in the fifth and final set. The Longhorns went on to advance to the NCAA championship, where they lost in four sets to Stanford.
Although heartbreaking at the time, and maybe a little bit to this day, hanging with Texas proved that the Cougars can hang with the very best in the country.
The Cougars (28-2) will again work to advance to the regional round of the 64-team NCAA Tournament beginning Friday night with a first-round match against Patriot League champion American (26-7). They'll do so being again tabbed the No. 13 seed in a tournament that seeds just the top 16 teams, and will be expected to become one of the final 16 teams in the tournament.
Such an expectation comes with a program that has managed five straight runs to at least the regional round of the NCAA Tournament, with the 2014 team advancing all the way to the NCAA championship match.
"It gives us confidence, no question," said BYU junior outside hitter Veronica Jones-Perry. "It's an advantage entering this tournament when it's not some big unknown. Most of the girls on the team were here last year, and some for some years before that, so I think it helps us be confident."
The experience gained from past years imparts the importance of focusing on each opponent, including American. While the Eagles may be considered an easy opponent to some, Cougar players, and particularly BYU coach Heather Olmstead, are giving Friday's opponent all of their attention.
"American is a very good team," Olmstead said. "They've been to multiple NCAA tournaments in a row and they're on an 18-match win streak. They've got the player of the year in their conference. They've got the libero of the year, so they're a very good opponent for us."
What BYU presents is somewhat similar to last season, which is a good thing. Largely intact from last year's team are the primary pin-hitters in Jones-Perry and McKenna Miller, among others, libero Mary Lake and primary setters Lyndie Haddock and Alohi Robins-Hardy. Gone are standout middle blockers Amy Boswell and Whitney Young Howard, but replacing them has been an effective combination of converted outside hitter Cosy Burnett and freshman Kennedy Redding.
"Cosy is doing a great job being that presence where we don't only know we can set her offensively, but defensively she's going to be a presence and touch some balls," Olmstead said of Burnett, who is a senior. "But then her energy and leadership being here five years, and knowing the culture, and knowing how we like to play."
Things certainly appear set for another deep run, although players and coaches prefer not to state any specific goals or expectations.
"We're just excited to play the next game and all the focus is there," Jones-Perry said. "We all love playing so much and making the most of any opportunity we have. Hopefully we can just get past American and then take on that next challenge."
Should BYU get past the Patriots, it will take on the winner of Kennesaw State vs. Oregon on Saturday. Friday's match will start at 7 p.m. MST and will be televised live on BYUtv.