PROVO — The photo shoot was in August just a few days into BYU women’s volleyball practices. It is now a prophetic horizontal 29-by-10-inch poster of killer’s row, a squad that gives no quarter, no mercy, a No. 1 ranked undefeated squad that is projected to be the No. 1 seed in the NCAA championships.
On that day, under the direction of BYU athletic department assistant creative director Shauna Howell, photographer Nate Edwards tried to create a theme for the image and he asked all members of the team to put their hands on their hips and to “put your game faces on.” What the camera captured, frozen for all time, were faces as serious as a heart attack. Faces ready to rumble. They looked prepared to go out and take down the barbed wire-wrapped baseball-bat-wielding Negan in TVs “Walking Dead.”
To a woman, the shot caught those faces in a pristine don’t-mess-with-me glare. That is, all except No. 3, freshman outside hitter Madelyn Robinson from Lone Peak High, owner of a 1,000-watt perfect ivory smile. Robinson could only turn 93 percent of her high kilowatt smile off.
Fast-forward three months. The BYU women are 23-0, 11-0 at home, 10-0 on the road and 2-0 at neutral sites. They’ve taken down No. 1 Stanford, No. 10 Southern Cal, No. 24 Utah and No. 25 Marquette. Their five-consecutive block sequence against San Diego is a YouTube legend, a testament of where the real border wall resides.
I asked Hall of Fame retired coach Elaine Michaelis, who sees every home match, what strikes her about this No. 1 team. Michaelis, who retired from coaching in 2002, had more victories than any female coach in America at any level at that time.
Michaelis’ first inclination was to credit women’s coach Heather Olmstead for her organization, teaching, delegation, schemes, practice acumen, recruiting and DNA.
Olmstead’s brother Shawn is BYU’s men’s volleyball coach and has also built a national power. Their father, Rick Olmstead, is considered Mr. Volleyball in California, a respected official and coach.
“I think you have to give Heather credit,” said Michaelis. “She’s done a very nice job and she is really prepared. She comes from a volleyball family tradition. She is technically sound, so she gets her players to be technically sound. She also has outstanding assistant coaches and lets them do their jobs, which isn’t always easy to do as a head coach. She deserves the credit.”
Michaelis said Olmstead’s team reminds her of her own Final Four team in 1993. She has respect for what Heather is doing with team chemistry.
“They are technically strong, they play their positions very well. There is a cohesiveness there. If you watch them in warmups, on the sideline, whether they are playing or not playing on the court, the celebration they have after every play and how they come together, it kind of makes you feel confident you can do your job because you have the support of everyone else. It is the unity which is really good, I don’t see any friction. They like and enjoy each other, and that makes all the difference in the world.”
Michaelis says a big key is setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich. “She’s really doing a nice job. She is 5-10 and not overbearing physically, but she is very quick, has great hands and makes her hitters look really good. She knows the game and is smart. She makes great choices and the sets are in great positions for the hitters. The stats show it.”
Without a big-time setter, it’s hard to be excellent.
The veteran coach said she could go up and down the line and pick out stars who make tremendous consistent plays, but outside hitter Roni Jones-Perry is a superstar. Many have called her one of the best hitters in school history on a team with very few weaknesses.
“Perry was an all-American last year, and she is an exceptional hitter but a great passer as well as server. If you need the ball to be put away, she can do it. She has all the shots. She can tool the shot. She is only 6 feet tall, but she can really jump and can find herself angles.”
Michaelis praised the other outside hitter, McKenna Miller. “She is having an exceptional year. Against San Diego, both outside hitters had 18 kills. In the meantime, the two middles just stuffed shots almost every time against San Diego, they had five consecutive blocks in a row, and it brought the house down.”
Freshman Heather Gneiting, at 6-4, is a hitter’s nightmare. “She came in well prepared,” said Michaelis. “She’s had good training and is playing like a senior. She is the daughter of former BYU center Tom Gneiting, and her technique is impressive. She hits a lot of shots most middles can’t make. She can go in the slot or behind the setter.
“The other middle is a 6-4 sophomore, Kennedy Eschenberg, and she is doing very well. They have good people in every position. The right side is a little questionable with inexperience and shifting lineups, but overall, this team is very talented.”
Michaelis singled out deep setter Mary Lake as a remarkable leader on the court. “She is a person who makes a lot of calls, can chase down deep balls and keep them in play and alive. She is an electric leader out there, and the team responds to her as does the crowd. They just love her hustle.”
Michaelis said BYU’s poster team is simply a combination of having the right people in the right positions and they are all doing their jobs.
The 2018 poster of this team is classic. It is appropriate and creatively etches the faces of these women in a serious working attitude pose for all time. Well, except for the one who has a quarter smile of sorts.31 comments on this story
“It’s like a family photo,” said creative director Dave Broberg. “You try and set up a photo and catch everyone at the right moment where everyone has their eyes open and doing what you want. It doesn’t always happen.”
But what is happening with BYU women’s volleyball is enough. The team with the gritty look is delivering kills. These athletes are spiking opponents to death.
“Going 23-0 is pretty awesome,” said Michaelis.
Especially when it’s rare to even lose a set in a match.
It’s 23 and counting.
Let Madelyn Robinson show a few Chiclets.