By Sam Araki
The improving No. 13 BYU women”s volleyball team fell to in-state rival No. 18 Utah Utes in a heartbreaking five-game thriller 25-30, 30-25, 32-30, 26-30, 12-15 Friday night, October 19, in Salt Lake City.
In a wild match featuring confident execution, numerous strategy changes, various momentum swings and a bloody nose, Utah seized the opportunity to win.
“I thought we played very well,” said Beth Launiere, Utah women”s volleyball coach. “We played with a lot of pride and composure.”
The Utes were buoyed all match by a capacity crowd of 1,571 fans in the tiny confines of Crimson Court.
“Obviously it”s a lot more comfortable being at home where you”re used to the surroundings,” said Elaine Michaelis, BYU women”s volleyball coach. “But we fought pretty hard in their gym.”
In the first game, BYU senior All-American middle blocker Nina Puikkonen led an energized Cougar team. With the return of their recent non-existent blocking game, the Cougars lost a close first game.
Puikkonen, who is slowly starting to fulfill gigantic preseason expectations, dominated the second and third games with important blocks and timely kills.
“This is a breakout match for her,” Michaelis said. “It”s nice to see her come out and play like that.”
Puikkonen had a season-high 24 kills and an outstanding 0.500 attack percentage, with 14 digs and eight blocks.
“I”ve kind of been on an upward slope in my personal life and stuff,” Puikkonen said. “I felt really confident tonight.”
The BYU squad rode the wave of momentum and seized early control of the fourth game, jumping out to a 20-14 lead. The Cougars were seemingly in control, and on the verge of clinching the match.
“Every play was pretty critical, and I thought we were pressing a little too hard,” Launiere said.
However, in a strange twist of events to Utah”s advantage, Puikkonen”s nose became a central issue.
“I just passed the ball off my nose,” Puikkonen said.
The ball hit Puikkonen”s arms, then off her nose, sending her off the court with a bleeding nose. BYU sophomore middle blocker Carrie Bowers, seeing her first action of the year, entered the game for Puikkonen.
A determined Puikkonen tried to return to the match with tissue-stuffed nostrils – to no avail. By the time the bleeding had stopped and she returned, Utah had taken four out of five points.
More importantly, the Utes had grasped the slim opportunity before them, and stole the momentum from the Cougars.
“It”s just the way it breaks sometimes,” Michaelis said. “I thought we played well, and Utah played well. Whoever had the momentum was going to win.”
With momentum as its ally, Utah jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead in the fifth game, and did not look back in clinching the match. BYU did not help its own cause, as it had a 0.000 attack percentage in the deciding game.
“There was a lot of strategy changes throughout the match,” Launiere said. “In the end we needed to get the ball to our middles.”
Utah”s inspired play was led by sophomore middle blocker Kim Turner with 18 kills, and senior middle blocker McKelle Stilson, who had 16 kills.
BYU had solid contributions from junior right side hitter Sunny Mahe, who had 16 kills, and senior middle blocker Jackie Bundy, who chipped in 13 kills.
The loss dropped the Cougars” overall record to 12-4, with a 6-2 Mountain West Conference record. With the win, Utah improves to 13-4 with an identical 6-2 MWC mark.
BYU will continue its play on the road when it visits Sacramento State Thursday, October 25. The Cougars will then play at Air Force Friday, Oct. 26 and at New Mexico Saturday the 27th.