By Sam Araki
Halfway through its season of dominance and embarrassment, the No. 13 BYU women”s volleyball team is at a crossroads, but it is determined to showcase its championship mettle.
No one can fault the Cougar”s convincing play in the month of September in which they compiled a 9-1 record with wins over No. 19 UC Santa Barbara and No. 21 Utah. After losing the first match of the month, the Cougars reeled off nine straight wins.
“I”m pleased with what happened in September,” said Elaine Michaelis, the BYU women”s volleyball coach. “Typically we do lose one in September when we”re getting started. So I thought we did well.”
Even with its early season play, Michaelis said BYU still had things to work on.
Unfortunately for the Cougars, the insulating comfort of the Smith Fieldhouse disguised their deficiencies. A trip to Fort Collins, Colo., to play perennial conference nemesis No. 9 Colorado State Rams on Oct. 6, exposed the Cougars and violated their confidence.
“We were blessed with a lot of home games at the beginning of the season, and we were a little shell-shocked going into someone else”s gym,” said Sunny Mahe, BYU junior right side hitter.
“After the loss to Colorado we might have backed up a little bit, and we went back into a learning mode like we were at the beginning of the season thinking there are all these things we need to fix,” Mahe said.
More recently the Cougars have displayed their struggles at home. On Tuesday, Oct. 16, BYU lost to an unranked but resilient and well-coached Utah State team.
The team”s trials continued on Oct. 19, when BYU lost to rival Utah in a grueling five-game match replete with bad breaks.
“In the last few weeks we ran into some hot teams,” Michaelis said. “We”re always ranked high, and so they feel like they have nothing to lose. They think if we win it”ll be a feather in our cap, if we lose to them it doesn”t mean anything.”
The Cougars carry a reputation of winning and being a national power year after year. The tradition of excellence is what makes BYU a target and a measuring stick for all volleyball teams, Michaelis said.
In the Cougars” recent lackluster play, blocking has curiously escaped the BYU game plan.
“We”ve been traditionally a very strong blocking team — second or third in the nation,” Michaelis said. “That has not been there this year, and it”s tough to figure out.”
Mane said the team is lacking in its blocking tradition this year. Mahe said, “We haven”t been aggressive in our block.”
In addition to the sudden deterioration of the BYU block, BYU senior All-American middle blocker Nina Puikkonen is finding it difficult to be the all-around threat that she has been in the past.
“People know us,” Michaelis said. “They”ve been focused on Nina all year because of her All-American status. So it”s been tough for her to do what she”s done before, because that”s what they”re trying to take away.”
“That makes it hard for her, because she”s not doing what she expects to do to help the team, yet most of it is out of her control because of what the other teams are doing,” Michaelis said.
As other teams continue to focus on BYU”s middle attack, its beneficiaries are the teams outside hitters. Notably, Mahe, senior outside hitter Natalie Whittaker and freshman outside hitter Lauren Richards, are beginning to emerge.
“I”m really pleased to see what the outside hitting accomplished against Utah State,” Michaelis said. “I”m pleased with the balance that is developing. Once teams have to worry about them maybe that”s when our middle attack will come back.”
As the Cougars look to the second half of the season, their goals and vision remain intact.
“These losses might have affected us a little bit, but I don”t think they”ve changed the belief we have in ourselves,” said Jackie Bundy, BYU senior middle blocker. “We still have the same goals we had at the beginning of the year, we still believe we”re a good team.”
According to Mahe and Bundy, the team needs to improve its blocking and restore confidence to meet its goals.
But the confidence that has been sinking the Cougars this month is rising again in a bold way.
“We still expect to be in the top four at the end of the season, and we might have given ourselves a harder road, but we”ll be there in the end,” Bundy said.
Mahe said the team has got Final Four talent.
“None of us question that.” Mahe said. “It”s just going to be a matter of putting it all together at the right time.”