BYU women’s volleyball sweeps Utah Valley in Crosstown Clash

BYU women’s volleyball head coach Heather Olmstead smiled and laughed when she was asked if the football team’s loss to No. 25 Oregon Saturday provided her team extra motivation for its annual Crosstown Clash against Utah Valley.

“We’re big supporters of everyone here at BYU,” Olmstead said. “It’s fun to be a BYU Cougar.”

After almost two weeks away from home and three tough losses to top-tier opponents, Olmstead’s team — the two-time defending WCC champions — certainly had some fun taking it to the twice defending WAC champs from up the road in Orem.

And now it’s time for the WCC farewell tour.

Erin Livingston had 10 kills and Eden Bower added nine more on 16 errorless swings off the bench as the No. 15 Cougars (7-3) needed just 89 minutes to sweep the Wolverines (25-16, 25-15, 25-20), keeping them undefeated in 17 all-time meetings against UVU (5-6) in front of 3,018 fans at the Smith Fieldhouse Saturday night.

Livingston credited the energy of the fans for lifting them to the victory. “It’s super fun playing a great team like UVU, but just being at home with our amazing fans, they gave us some great energy tonight.”

Olmstead said she loved the resiliency and grit of the team in bouncing back from three consecutive losses to close out non-conference play with two wins against in-state opponents, which included a tough four-set win over Utah in Salt Lake on Thursday.

“It’s never easy to play your in-state rivals because there’s a lot of emotion,” Olmstead explained. “I thought our team executed really well today.”

That execution was led by Cougar setter Whitney Bower, who kept the offense rolling with 30 assists to go with eight digs. She also chipped in with five kills on seven errorless attempts, all coming on second-contact dump shots. Bower explained her decision to go over on the second contact always depends on the first pass. “It depends on the scouting report, too–whether or not they’ll honor the setter,” she said. “It’s really in the moment, though, of whether or not I’ll do it.”

Senior middle blocker and Pleasant Grove native Heather Gneiting added eight more kills on 18 swings with two errors, hitting .333 for the match. All told, the Cougars as a team had only 12 hitting errors on the night, hitting .316, while the Wolverines had 17 errors, hitting .163.

Olmstead also credited her team’s passing in the match. “I thought [libero Aria McComber, libero Kelsey Knudsen, and outside hitter Kate Grimmer] passed really well, and [outside hitter Elyse Stowell] passed some good balls as well,” she explained. “That gave Whitney Bower the ability to set up good offense, and I think that was reflected in the stats.”

Another factor in the game was the serving. BYU had seven service aces to only one for Utah Valley. Cougar serving specialist Alyssa Montoya (three aces), Gneiting (two aces), and McComber (two aces) were especially relentless from behind the line as BYU kept the Wolverines out of system all night long.

Ironically, McComber said practices always start with serve-receive and the Cougars have a goal to win the serve and pass game every match. “That’s what’s going to give us the best opportunities to win offensively,” she explained.

Using that tough serving, the Cougars came out red-hot to start the match, using a 10-1 run (which was a 9-0 run at one point) to build an 11-point lead in the first set. Montoya had three aces in the run alone, which forced Wolverines coach Sam Atoa to quickly burn both of his timeouts. But it was an amazing scramble play that ended with Stowell bringing the crowd out of their seats by smashing a laser beam past the block and down the sideline to put BYU up 20-11 that put the exclamation point on the first set.

Coach Olmstead said the tough serving is a staple of her team to help set up their defense. “We were focused on getting Utah Valley out of system, and I thought we did a good job of doing that and holding their offense in check,” she said.

It was more of the same in set two as the Cougars raced out to an 8-0 lead before Utah Valley opposite Jules Fink put a temporary stop to the bleeding. At one point, the Cougars hit .714 for the set, while the Wolverines were hitting -.222. The lead ballooned to as many as ten as the Cougars cruised to the win in set two.

However, set three was tighter with four ties, most coming early on. The Cougars started pulling away late thanks to more tough serving, aided by Heather Gneiting’s back-to-back service aces to put BYU up by as many as seven. The Wolverines wouldn’t go away, however, cutting the lead to three before the Cougars shut the door with kills by Bower and Gneiting to snatch the victory.

But McComber and her teammates know bigger challenges lie ahead as the Cougars open their final WCC campaign against Loyola Marymount next Thursday.

“We knew coming in that we would have to play our game of volleyball and keep fighting for every point,” McComber said. “We’re going to be challenged this entire season, and we needed this game to give each other confidence and our team some momentum.”

Bower and Livingston said the Cougars welcome the challenge the WCC poses this year. “That’s only going make us better and playing [teams like San Diego and Pepperdine] is going to prepare us for the NCAA tournament,” Bower stated.

Olmstead also believes her team is in a good position, and playing LMU and Pepperdine next week will help them learn more about where they are. “We’re going to have battles every night, and I think it’s good for our team,” she said.

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