The dictionary definition of assertive is “having or showing a confident and forceful personality”.
As Tuesday’s practice at the Smith Fieldhouse was winding down, BYU women’s volleyball certainly looked that way running serving drills.
The players seemed loose and alive with energy. They were communicating, calling out who had the ball as head coach Heather Olmstead and her assistants did serve-receive practice. They huddled around each other and cheered as they ended 20 minutes early for the day.
And then reality seemed to set in on the two-time defending West Coast Conference champions that things are about to get serious.
The No. 16 Cougars begin their 12th and final season in the WCC with a scrappy Loyola Marymount team that notched wins against UCLA and Ole Miss Thursday at 7 p.m., before No. 17 Pepperdine — who upset Baylor, Washington, and Minnesota — visits the Smith Fieldhouse for a Saturday afternoon matinee at 1 p.m.
Although the task ahead may be daunting, you certainly couldn’t tell the players were nervous about it. In fact, some, like senior outside hitter Erin Livingston and senior setter Whitney Bower, said they welcome the challenge the conference schedule presents this year.
Olmstead said that the assertiveness the fans have seen comes from the players themselves and has translated to what has happened on the volleyball court, which she believed her team did well last week. The focus, she explained, is on incremental progress.
An example of tracking that progress are the personal journals that each player keeps during the season. “The players come in with daily goals and objectives that they want to focus on. They’ve even got their notes to reflect on what they did; it’s a personal journal that allows them to grow and learn while they’re on the court with us,” Olmstead said.
Senior outside hitter Kate Grimmer explained that assertiveness includes being locked in, even against teams like an LMU that may be easy to overlook. “We don’t sit there and say [we’ll do things drastically different]. We just let the noise be noise.”
Cougar senior libero Aria McComber, who transferred from Washington State, stated the Pac-12 was so tightly contested, it would be a toss-up. Now, that competition is slowly trickling down to the WCC, just in time for the transition to the Big 12.
“Our team takes every game as serious as it could be,” McComber said. “We want to strive for excellence at every point, and we want to continue that.”
Grimmer also discussed how this last season in the WCC will prepare BYU for what’s to come in the athletic and physical Big 12, especially with traditional powers Texas and Baylor looming in the wings as future conference foes. “Obviously, you’re not going to get better if you’re not tested. Having those tests now [in the WCC] is important for us [going into the Big 12].”
It will be needed, especially with LMU and Pepperdine being the top two blocking teams in the conference, averaging 2.74 and 2.78 blocks per set, respectively. Additionally, Pepperdine leads the WCC in kills (13.48/set) and assists (12.67/set), plus they boast the second-best hitting percentage in the conference (.231), trailing only San Diego, who entered the top five in the AVCA Top 25 Coaches Poll this week at No. 4.
McComber explained the Cougars have their own strengths they can play to — the pin hitters have their own tool shots they’ve been working on perfecting, and the defense knows they’ll have to work hard to not let any ball touch the floor. “Every team we face, we need to go all out, and we’ve really embraced that mindset this year,” she said.
One of those hitters is the senior Grimmer, who says the team’s goal is win the WCC every season.
“The next game we have is always the biggest game we play,” Grimmer said. “We’ve got to lock in on the present. Every practice, every rep, every touch matters.”
Olmstead said respecting every opponent in each match of the conference season will be crucial, especially with how the competition in the WCC has grown dramatically in recent years. She explained the resume of the coaches, recruiting, and locations of the schools have attracted better talent recently.
On the upside, Olmstead said her team is battle-tested, which she believes will make for a great weekend of volleyball. It makes sense, given the Cougars have faced three top-ten teams and LMU has faced a total of four teams that were ranked at some point during the season so far (Utah, Kansas, Nebraska, and UCLA). The Waves aren’t too shabby, either; they’ve also faced four ranked teams and beaten three of them.
“We know every opponent wants to come in here and beat us, and we’re going to get everyone’s best shot,” Olmstead said. “We have a target on our back; we need to respond to that and play our best brand of BYU volleyball.”