No. 17 BYU women’s volleyball rides Taylor’s career day to survive Halloween scare in sweep over Portland

After a rough two weeks on the road with two difficult losses, BYU women’s volleyball coach Heather Olmstead and her squad were looking forward to some good old-fashioned home cooking.

And when the Portland Pilots tried to crash the party, the Cougars still found a way to win, as they have often done this season, by relying on tough serving and gritty confidence.

So much for getting spooked.

Setter Abby Taylor brought the tricks with a career-high seven service aces, the second-most in the BYU rally scoring era, teammate Erin Livingston added 14 kills, and the no. 17 BYU women’s volleyball team (16-5, 9-2) treated 3,134 fans at the Smith Fieldhouse to a three-set sweep (25-23, 25-20, 25-10) over the pesky Pilots (9-14, 2-10) on Saturday afternoon.

“I just loved the way we came together and played for each other,” Olmstead said. The match was dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Title IX and celebrated Alumni Weekend, which included an emotional tribute to legendary coach Elaine Michaelis, who often attends women’s volleyball home games, especially on Saturdays.

Olmstead said having the alumni in the crowd made a huge difference. “You can feel the pride [the alumni] had in playing for BYU and we’re trying to instill that in our girls to be proud of the uniform on their back.”

It was also a cathartic weekend for the Cougars, who came in having lost two out of three–a five-set upset loss at Pacific and a sweep at the hands of no. 4 San Diego last Saturday. BYU also was shorthanded; starting setter Whitney Bower was out with a knee injury she suffered last weekend against the Toreros, and reserve middle blocker Sophia Callahan was in a walking boot after she sprained her ankle in the closing moments of the win over Gonzaga on Thursday night.

But it was Livingston who single-handedly carried BYU in getting six kills with one error after the Pilots had jumped out to an early lead, holding BYU to just .182 hitting at the first set’s media timeout. The teams traded blows until Livingston ended the first set with her eighth kill to get the Cougars in front in the match after a nearly 40-minute battle.

Taylor, a transfer from Wyoming, credited the fans for lifting them to the victory in what was a scrappy first set. “We have such a great fanbase,” she said. “It was great to feel the energy and play strong with my teammates.”

The fans’ energy would be needed again as the Cougars had a seven-point lead trimmed to one as the Pilots clawed their way back into the second set. Taylor also struggled to find a consistent rhythm as some of her sets came out low, not allowing the hitters to get on top of the ball.

But even as nervous rumblings spread throughout the Smith, Olmstead said she remained confident in her setter’s ability to run the offense. “She just kept her focus on the targets,” she stated. “I was proud of how she got our offense warmed up, especially down the stretch.”

Taylor, though, credited the coaching staff and her teammates for keeping her head up in those moments. “I have great teammates that rally around me,” she explained. “Whitney’s a great player, and I know that’s huge role to fill, but I know they’ll always support me.”

The third set ended up being completely different from the first two.

When asked what was said in the huddle, Taylor explained the coaches needed the players to give more. She got the memo and did so, as she continued to be a menace from behind the service line. Her serving triggered a 10-0 Cougar run to break open the match, putting BYU up 20-6 at one point in the third set.

“We knew [Abby] was going to bring it behind the service line,” Olmstead said. “I love that she just found ways to contribute to our team.”

Contributions in other ways have been a common theme all season long for the Cougars, and Taylor explained that doesn’t change the way the team plays. “We just play how we always play, and sometimes it falls in our favor,” she said.

It fell in the Cougars’ favor so much in the third set that Olmstead let out a yell and pumped her fist when freshman middle Kate Prior slammed down an overpass kill, a somewhat rare show of emotion from the seventh-year head coach.

By the time she knew BYU was home free after Portland coach Megan Burton burned her last timeout, Olmstead was beaming from ear to ear.

“It’s just exciting to have the home crowd with us,” Olmstead said. “We’re looking forward to a great week of practice, and then we’ll get back on the road.”

And the road is where they will be again until returning home for what will be a revenge match against Pacific on November 10.

But even as the challenges get tougher–which will include a senior night rematch against San Diego during Thanksgiving week–Taylor said the Cougars are always seeking to improve. “We’re always working in practice to get better as a team and get better at all of our skills,” she said.

If there’s any indication of that commitment to get better, Olmstead’s speech at intermission should tell the story of how the rest of the season unfolds. “We just told the team to not take anything for granted [during intermission],” Olmstead said. “We want to act like we’re down 0-2 and just go out and execute at the highest level we can.”

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