SALT LAKE CITY — It might be intimidating to face the country’s No. 1 ranked volleyball team just a few weeks into the season. But for Dani Drews and the Utah volleyball team, the unique delight that comes from facing one’s rival eclipses just about everything.
“I’m so excited,” the sophomore outside hitter said as a grin lit up her face. “It’s one of the games I look forward to the most because they’re our rival, but also because they’re such a good team.” In fact, the Cougars' No. 1 ranking only adds to the intrigue that is the BYU-Utah rivalry. This year, both squads are ranked, with Utah sitting at No. 24 in the coaches’ poll.
“It’s going to be a really good opportunity for us to play tough competition and push ourselves,” Drews said, smiling bigger when asked about BYU’s top ranking. “That would be a huge win.”
Both coaches said they’re not worried about rankings or rivalries as they prepare for Thursday night’s 7 p.m. match at the Smith Fieldhouse. “It’s exciting because it’s Utah, it’s a rivalry game, and there is excitement, attention and interest from the community,” said BYU head coach Heather Olmstead. “It’s two top 25 teams, and there is definitely a buzz and an energy. But for us, we’ve got to focus on the task at hand. Everything is the same for us, and we’re just getting in the gym and trying to get better at volleyball.”
BYU is one of nine undefeated teams in the country, and its 8-0 record includes wins over ranked teams like USC and Marquette. In the Marquette Invitational, seniors Roni Jones-Perry and Lyndie Haddock-Eppich were named to the All-Tournament team with Jones-Perry earning MVP honors.
BYU owns an impressive record against the Utes, especially at home, where they are 40-10.
The Cougars are just as excited about hosting Utah as the Utes are to be facing the country’s top team.
“I think it’s just a really fun rivalry,” said Jones-Perry. “It’s super high energy in the gym, and we get a bunch of fans no matter which school we play at.”
She said the ranking is something the players celebrated briefly, but it didn’t have any impact on their preparation for Utah.
“Volleyball is still volleyball,” she said. “We need to go out and do what we do, and do it well. It doesn’t really do anything for us.”
Olmstead said Jones-Perry’s leadership comes from her work ethic and her play.
“She wants to get better every day,” Olmstead said of the Copper Hills alum. “Back row, front row, she’s always looking to get better. She’s a quiet leader, and she just puts her head down and gets to work.”
While the Cougars have experience and depth, Utah has a young team that lost one of its two seniors, middle blocker Berkeley Oblad, to a season-ending injury this week. Freshman Kennedi Evans moved from the outside to middle, but she’s missed most of the preseason with an injury.
Then on Friday, freshman outside hitter Megan Yett’s father passed away after battling cancer. She’ll play in both the BYU match Thursday and the UVU match Friday before returning home to Idaho for her father’s funeral.
“It’s been a tough road traveled so far for us,” said Utah head coach Beth Launiere. “We’re trying to get a young team put together with a lot of roadblocks.” Still, she said they’re embracing the opportunity for players to take on new roles.
“I’m very excited about the opportunity young people will have to step up — and they will,” she said. “It takes time when you’re a young team. I’m excited about how much better they are getting every day.”