By Sam Araki
The defending Mountain West Conference womens volleyball champions, the No. 14 BYU Cougars, will open their conference schedule against 21st-ranked Utah at the Smith Fieldhouse on Thursday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m.
Due to the tragic events of Sept. 11, BYU (5-1) has been idle since claiming the BYU Mizuno Classic on Sept. 8.
Returning to play a nationally ranked team, an in-state rival, and conference foe indicate that Thursday night”s game will be competitive.
“Utah has its traditionally good team and has been ranked all season,” said BYU coach Elaine Michaelis. “We both have strengths in the middle and on the right side and have some new people on the outsides.”
The Cougars, whose lone loss came at the hands of No. 25 Texas, have sharpened their focus after the lengthy layoff.
“This should be an outstanding match between two nationally ranked teams,” Michaelis said.
Utah, (4-2), has lost to No. 3 Arizona and Louisville, but is coming off a win against No. 23 Colorado, said Utah coach Beth Launiere. The team is excited to take on the Cougars, she said.
“This is a great rivalry obviously because it is Utah-BYU, but also because there are so many in-state players on both teams which makes for a good match-up for volleyball within the state of Utah,” she said.
The BYU attack has a decided advantage over the Utah attack with all-Mountain West Conference sophomore setter, Karina Puikkonen directing the Cougar attack.
“We are fortunate to have an experienced setter in Karina (Puikkonen),” Michaelis said. “They have two freshman setters, but their hitters are experienced and very good.”
Although BYU fell short of its goals by losing to Arizona in the NCAA Regional Semifinals in 2000, there is a feeling among the Cougars that 2001 will be a big year.
Led by BYU senior outside hitters Nina Puikkonen, Natalie Whittaker, and middle blocker Jackie Bundy, the Cougars are determined to have the best season of any BYU women”s volleyball team ever.
“Talking to the team is pacifying. It”s nice to know you can tell them what you feel,” Whittaker said as she described the Cougar”s team chemistry. As for potential results she said, “This is the year.”
Entering the match on Thursday, Sept. 20, BYU rides a 14-match home winning streak, and holds a 29-1 all-time record against the Utes in the Smith Fieldhouse.
The Cougars” matches against Loyola Marymount and Hawaii, Sept. 13-15, have been cancelled and will not be rescheduled.
BYU ranks 10th nationally in attendance with an average crowd of 1,452. The Utah at BYU match will also be broadcast live on KBYU-TV, channel 11, and on BYU-TV which is available on alternative cable providers.