PROVO — If there were questions about how the BYU women’s volleyball players would deal with being the top-ranked team in the country, the Cougars offered an emphatic answer Thursday night on their home court, against their fiercest rival, in front of a record-setting crowd.
“I thought it was interesting,” said BYU head volleyball coach Heather Olmstead after BYU swept Utah 25-20, 25-14, 25-17 in front of 5,472 fans at Smith Fieldhouse. “We get ranked No. 1 and then we play our rivals, Utah, at home, and we were all curious about how we were going to respond. I thought we did a great job.”
The first set was back and forth, but BYU dominated the second set with stellar serving and finished the match with an impressive .407 hitting percentage. At the same time, their serves, which included five aces, caused the young Utah team enough trouble that they held the Utes to a .148 hitting percentage.
“They were serving tough (in the first set), and we weren’t passing very well,” Olmstead said. “So our passing settled down, and it gave (setter) Lyndie (Haddock Eppich) the opportunity to distribute the ball.”
BYU was led by senior outside hitter Roni Jones-Perry, who finished with 13 kills, while Kennedy Eschenberg added nine kills, McKenna Miller finished with eight kills, and Heather Gneiting earned seven kills. Lyndie Haddock-Eppich finished with 31 assists and three kills. Mary Lake led the defensive effort with 12 digs, while Haddock-Epic added 10 digs.
Utah head coach Beth Launiere would have preferred a different outcome, but she also felt good about a lot of what she saw from her team.
“I thought we started out well,” she said. “We were executing at a pretty high level, but obviously, we couldn’t sustain that against a very good team. The things I knew we have to get better at, showed up tonight.”
She said the experience of playing the No. 1 team in a raucous atmosphere was invaluable.
“I think it was an excellent experience for our kids,” Launiere said. “Obviously not in terms of losing. But my young players have to go through these matches. We’re going to get better. We have a lot of nice, young talent on the floor. …We just couldn’t do some of the things we knew we needed to do.”
Utah was led by sophomore Dani Barton Drews, who led the team’s offense with 11 kills. Setter Bailey Choy earned 21 assists.
The atmosphere for the match that featured No. 1 BYU and No. 24 Utah was loud and rowdy as people jammed into every corner of the Smith to watch the country’s top team take on their rival from the Pac-12. The players said the ranking is still a bit surreal.
"I think it's definitely an honor, and we definitely weren't just given it," she said. "But we practice even harder now. We still feel like we're the underdogs. We're not going to change anything."
The support of the crowd was almost overwhelming for the team.
“It’s electric out there,” Haddock-Eppich said. “There is no place like playing at the Smith. We feed off of their energy, and it builds confidence in us. It was great to have that kind of support.”
Added Olmstead, “We’re proud of the product we put on the floor, and we hope people will come back.27 comments on this story
The standing room only crowd was so loud, senior outside Roni Jones-Perry said there were times when she had to rely on offensive hand signals from Haddock-Eppich and their long-time friendships.
“It just comes down to how much time we’ve spent playing together,” Jones-Perry said, adding that sometimes all it takes is a look from her setter and she understands what to do.
Eschenberg said Thursday’s victory is one of her most memorable in her two years at BYU.
“It was really fun,” said the Bountiful grad. “Any time you get to play Utah, you just get pumped up. It was cool, and a record-breaking (number) of fans. That just helps so much.”