No. 16 BYU women’s volleyball hands Heather Olmstead win number 200 in four-set victory over No. 17 Pepperdine

BYU women’s volleyball coach Heather Olmstead took the game ball from senior setter Whitney Bower and acknowledged the fans at the Smith Fieldhouse in celebration of her 200th win at BYU.

And then she went straight back to the locker room, knowing there was still work to be done.

Middle blocker Whitney Llarenas had 13 kills and fellow middle Heather Gneiting added 12 more, and the no. 16 Cougars (9-3, 2-0) took down the no. 17 Pepperdine Waves (9-4, 0-2) in a hard-fought four-set win (25-12, 18-25, 25-21, 25-22) in front of 3,004 fans Saturday afternoon.

In what coach Olmstead called “an appetizer” to Saturday’s football game against Wyoming, the Cougars got all they could handle from the Waves, but did just enough in hitting .219 for the match and holding Pepperdine to .126 hitting.

Llarenas said the game plan (which ended up making the difference) was simple: the middles needed to hit quick, high, and hard, and the pin hitters needed to swing for space. “We just really needed to keep those cues in our head throughout the match,” she stated.

It was also a defensive battle between the two sides as the teams combined for 102 digs, with BYU holding a 56-46 edge. There were also 21 ties in the match and seven lead changes, with most of them coming in the third and fourth sets. The teams also combined for 48 hitting errors, 24 a piece, with plenty of block avoidance swings and contacts that just looked all wrong.

In the end, it was a classic, scrappy West Coast Conference match that was ugly on paper, but could only be appreciated after watching its final act.

“I’m proud of the way we stuck together and fought,” Olmstead said after the victory. “Pepperdine’s a great team, and we’re proud of the way we came out and played.”

She should have been, as the Cougars came out red hot to start the match, with their tough serving causing the Waves to scramble offensively. BYU led by as many as ten in the first set and cruised to the double-digit victory. BYU held the Waves to a negative hitting percentage (-.067) and hit .409 themselves in the first set, siding out at an incredible 91%.

The second set was where Pepperdine flipped the script. It was the Waves who jumped out to lead by as many as seven, and held BYU to just .152 hitting, while they hit .357 for the set. The Cougars got no closer than five in falling in the second set.

Llarenas said the team lost their focus during the second set, but credited Pepperdine for challenging them. “I think we were just able to turn it around and settle back in [before the third set], as well as give ourselves some more confidence,” she explained.

The final two sets proved to be the battle that fans were expecting. At one point in the pivotal third game, both sides hit under .100 for the set, with several long rallies ending in the Waves’ favor. Pepperdine also threw a block party in putting up five blocks on BYU hitters.

But it was Gneiting that ignited the Cougars to pull away and grind out the victory in the third set. Despite the fact she went through a drought where she committed four consecutive hitting errors at one point, she was a menace from behind the service line with three aces and got in on six of the eight blocks put up by the Provo Roofing Company.

“I’ve just been working on saying, ‘next ball, I’ve got the next one’,” Gneiting said, discussing her struggles in the middle two sets. “The things that were working out [blocking and serving], I knew I could do those things and help my team the best I could.”

An additional switch at libero also turned the tide. Olmstead made the bold move of swapping normal libero Kelsey Knudsen out for Aria McComber, who donned the navy jersey in the third set.

She acknowledged while both McComber and Knudsen battle every day in practice for the dark shirt, they understood their roles in that moment. “Either one of them can get the job done,” Olmstead explained. “But when we made the switch, the team just rallied behind them and kept playing.”

In the deciding set, no team led by more than four until the Cougars built a 21-17 lead late. But the Waves fought back, saving four consecutive match points to get the lead down to two at 24-22, and Olmstead burned both timeouts during the run.

In the huddle, Llarenas said Olmstead got the team to focus on the present as the Waves continued to chip away at the deficit, hoping to force a fifth set that never came. “We just had to tell ourselves, ‘Whatever has happened has happened’,” she stated. “We knew what our strengths were, and we just told ourselves to come out and put the ball game away.”

And one mighty swing by junior outside hitter Erin Livingston later, her 13th kill of the match, the Cougars did just that–and coach Olmstead got her 200th win. She passed legendary Hawai’i head coach Dave Shoji for the fastest to do so in NCAA history, accomplishing the feat in her 225th match.

Llarenas explained how honored she was to be part of the milestone. “She’s super humble,” Llarenas said of coach Olmstead. “You wouldn’t even notice she has 200 wins from the way she carries herself. We love her and appreciate everything she’s done for our team.”

Olmstead credited the fans for showing up on a Saturday afternoon with football still to come. “To come out on a Saturday afternoon and have them see two top-17 teams, they gave us a lot of energy and confidence today,” she said.

And not to be outdone, the girls later repaid the favor in attending the football team’s 38-24 victory over Wyoming that night.

“Cougar Nation is awesome, and they really showed out,” Olmstead said.

The Cougars will now head on the road for two matches in the Pacific Northwest. First up is a date with the Portland Pilots on Thursday, September 28, at 7:00pm before a Saturday matinee on October 1 versus the Gonzaga Bulldogs in Spokane at 1:00pm. They will play their next home match on Thursday, October 6 against the Santa Clara Broncos.

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