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Jaren Wilkey/BYU
The BYU women's volleyball team prepares for its matchup with Texas in the regional final of the NCAA women's volleyball championships on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018 at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo. The Cougars swept the Longhorns to advance to the Final Four with the win.

MINNEAPOLIS — The No. 4-seeded BYU women's volleyball team (31-1) has met every challenge thrown its way this season and will take on the biggest one to date when taking on No. 1 seed Stanford (32-1) Thursday night at the Target Center. The match starts at 5 p.m. MST and will be televised live on ESPN with No. 3 Illinois taking on No. 7 Nebraska in the other semifinal match at 7 p.m. MST.

The stage is the NCAA championship final four, a venue not unfamiliar to BYU coach Heather Olmstead who helped guide the Cougars to the championship match in 2014.

Back then Heather was an assistant to her brother Shawn Olmstead, who has since moved on to take the coaching duties of the BYU men's volleyball team while Heather assumed the head-coaching role of the women's. Both Olmsteads guided the unseeded Cougars on a remarkable run that year until Penn State proved the better team in the championship held at Oklahoma City.

"It was just an exciting year," Heather Olmstead recalls of that run in 2014. "I think we just kept getting better and better as the year went on and peaked at the right time. We just had a fabulous run in the tournament and it was a great team to be a part of."

The 2014 team starred standouts such as 6-foot-7 opposite hitter Jen Hamson, who many consider the best to ever play at BYU, along with 6-2 outside hitter Alexa Gray and 6-4 middle blocker Amy Boswell. This year's team features similar talent, with standouts such as 6-0 outside hitter Roni Jones-Perry, 6-4 freshman of the year Heather Gneiting and All-American setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich, among many others, although Heather points out the most important similarities between the two squads.

"They're similar in that we're playing our best volleyball at the right time," Heather Olmstead said. "It's exciting to see us continue to get better and having that growth mindset as we head into the final four."

Many didn't expect the Cougars to be at their best during this point of the season after starting opposite hitter McKenna Miller suffered a torn ACL late in the season, making Heather Olmstead's coaching particularly notable. But with opposite hitters — primarily senior Lacy Haddock and freshman Madelyn Robinson stepping up —BYU hasn't missed the beat most were anticipating.

As for taking on No. 1 Stanford, the Cougars will certainly need to be at their best, much as they were back on August 31 when handing the Cardinal its lone loss on the season. Much has changed for both teams since, although Heather Olmstead expects Stanford to have made similar progress as her team prior to Thursday's match.

"Stanford's a really good serving team. They're also good at passing, so their offense is stable," Heather Olmstead observed. "Their setter does a good job setting up different people. Defensively they're very good, as well."

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The Cardinal features three players named to the AVCA first-team All-American squad: Setter Jenna Gray, libero Morgan Hentz and outside hitter Kathryn Plummer. The Cougars had two named to the first-team squad: Jones-Perry and Haddock-Eppich. BYU libero Mary Lake was a second-team selection.

"Stanford is obviously an opponent we're familiar with, having played them. They're a great team," Heather Olmstead said. "They just continue to get better throughout the year, so it's going to be a tough challenge for us. But we're really excited to see how well we can perform."