PROVO — An oft-repeated concept for the BYU women's volleyball team this season regards a focus on what's right in front of them and staying in the present rather than fret about what's ahead or whallow in what may have just transpired.
Turns out the present state for the No. 4-seeded Cougars (31-1) could hardly be better on the heels of Saturday night's straight set win over No. 5 Texas (25-23, 25-23, 25-21.)
The win sends BYU on a plane to Minneapolis where they'll compete to take a national championship for the first time in program history.
“It’s awesome. You can tell by the emotion of all of us out there that it’s just so special that we get to keep moving forward,” said BYU senior Lyndie Haddock-Eppich. “It’s just amazing that we’ve made this accomplishment so far.”
The Cougars closed out the match on Saturday in fairly typical fashion, with regional MVP Roni Jones-Perry taking over late to rally past a 20-18 deficit and then take the match in straight sets. Jones-Perry was central in the Cougars' 7-1 run to close out the match, scoring a kill late and then forcing the Longhorns into a net violation on her final kill attempt to send her team and the home crowd of 5,326 into a bit of a frenzy.
So what was key to the Cougars playing at their best late? The answer is the same it's been all season.
“It says that we’re just a fighting team and that we’re resilient,” Jones-Perry said. “You probably hear it from us a lot, but we really do a good job of staying in the present and focusing on what we want.”
Fittingly Jones-Perry has rarely been better, playing in her final match at the Smith Fieldhouse in what has been one of the better careers put forth by any Cougar player ever. In Saturday's win she scored 25 kills on a .367 hitting percentage while doing her best work in the match's most critical moments.
Her performance made her an easy choice for Regional MVP honors, with Haddock-Eppich, Mary Lake and freshman Heither Gneiting joining Jones-Perry in being named to the All-Regional team.
But as Jones-Perry hurries to point out, the Cougars' success goes far beyond all the phenomenal things she does personally match-in and match-out. According to BYU coach Heather Olmstead, what makes this year's team special is a real sense of team unity.
"I think this team just has a lot of love for each other," Olmstead said. "They love each other. They serve each other. They're every day grinding for each other and for themselves. They just know what they want and they have a lot of belief in themselves, and they're just a special group."
the match was tight throughout, with the Longhorns taking a 9-5 early lead in the first set which saw BYU have trouble getting much of anything through a tough Texas front. But again it was the Cougars showing an ability to rally and figure things out, rallying from a 19-17 deficit late to win the set 25-23 with sophomore Kennedy Eschenberg scoring the set-winning kill.
The second set went back and forth throughout until the Cougars went on a 5-1 run late to lead 24-20 with Jones-Perry again leading the way, scoring three of BYU's five points in the critical run. Texas fought back to score three straight, but a kill by Jones-Perry ended the set and put the Cougars up two sets to none.
Texas block continued to frustrate the Cougar attack, but the back row was again able to dig out enough balls to provide points. Overall the Cougars out-dug the Longhorns 38-23, proving to be one of the more significant stats of the night.
Digs and quality touches are often considered little things by the casual fan, but not in the mind of Olmstead.26 comments on this story
"There are no little things. Everything is a big deal," Olmstead said. "Every touch. Every time we're talking and looking at each other in the eye. Every time they have a chance to make a play it's a big deal."
Overall the Cougars have had their challenges this season, although they've largely made it look easy for most of the year.
"We've been through a lot together. Not just volleyball-related, but just life," Olmstead said. "So it's a big deal that we get experience this together, which is the volleyball part. It's going to serve them well for the rest of their life."