Valiant effort not enough for No. 18 BYU women’s volleyball in four-set Senior Night loss to No. 2 San Diego

You could see from the emotions on the faces of the six seniors on the BYU women’s volleyball team this is not how they wanted the regular season to end.

What looked so promising to start ended up being a hard reality check against the team that basically ran away with the West Coast Conference.

The no. 2 San Diego Toreros (27-1, 18-0) provided just that, as Breana Edwards had 18 kills and Grace Frohling added 13 more in pulling away for a gritty four-set (21-25, 25-19, 25-22, 25-22) victory over the no. 18 Cougars (21-6, 15-3) on Tuesday night in what was likely BYU’s final home match at the Smith Fieldhouse in 2022, in front of 4,677 raucous, royal-clad fans — the second-largest home crowd this season, and a national television audience on ESPNU.

The Toreros, who are heading to the NCAA tournament as the WCC’s regular season champions, completed their second undefeated conference season in school history and their first since 2004, won their 24th match in a row, and snapped the Cougars’ 28-match home winning streak in WCC play. USD handed BYU just their second home loss of the season, dating to September 3 against Pitt.

It also marked the likely final home match for six BYU seniors: middle blocker Heather Gneiting, setter Abby Taylor — who started the last seven matches, outside hitter Kate Grimmer, libero Kelsey Knudsen, reserve libero Abby Dayton, and starting setter Whitney Bower, who made her return to the lineup after missing the last seven matches with a knee injury.

Despite the loss, head coach Heather Olmstead said she was proud of the team’s effort throughout a tightly contested battle. “Congrats to San Diego, they played a great match,” she said. “I’m proud of the way we kept believing and trying to problem-solve our way through the match.”

She also gave a shout out to the fans who roared as one throughout the night, especially on a Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to play in front of family and friends and just people who love our girls,” Olmstead stated. “I don’t know a better way to end the year than for them to see high-level volleyball like this.”

BYU did their part, as junior outside hitter Erin Livingston put up 13 kills despite being held in check all night long, while Gneiting added 13 more to keep the Cougars’ belief alive. Ultimately, the team couldn’t overcome 25 attack errors and had difficulty responding to San Diego’s tough serving, and in a close match that featured 29 ties and 13 lead changes, most of them coming in the third set, it was the Toreros who had every answer on a night where BYU will bemoan their missed opportunities.

It certainly started well for the Cougars, as they raced to a 5-0 lead early in the match. It was energized by the return of Bower to the lineup, who got the crowd roaring with two of her signature dump shot kills. Middle blocker Whitney Llarenas scored on a step-out to win the first set, just the third time this season the Toreros had lost a set.

But the Toreros effectively took control after that, utilizing their size at the net to throw up 11 total blocks on BYU hitters. Outside hitter Breana Edwards carried the load, slamming down five kills to put USD up by as many as eight. The teams traded side-outs before a solo block on Llarenas ended proceedings in the second.

Olmstead said the third and fourth sets was where the tide turned.

“We had a hard time stopping and slowing down their offense,” Olmstead explained. “We needed a few more blocks and we needed to get a few more stops.”

It was especially critical late in the third set. That set found BYU up 20-18, appearing to close in on a 2-1 lead in the match. Livingston had woken up in the set, as she blasted six kills with no errors in 10 swings, and pulling out two critical service aces. However, San Diego clawed back, going up 22-20 on a hitting error by Elyse Stowell. The Cougars couldn’t come all the way back as a service ace by Frohling pushed the Cougars to the wall.

The Toreros hit a sizzling .357 in set three, despite the Cougars hitting .270. It was the defense of USD that made the difference, however, as they out-blocked BYU 4.0 to 1.5 in the set. Overall, the Cougars were out-blocked 11.0 to 7.5 on the night.

BYU eventually ran out of gas and ran out of answers in the fourth set, committing too many self-inflicted errors despite chipping the deficit to two points, and making USD work for every point. The Cougars had 58 digs on the night as a team, a season-high, to go with 55 total team kills.

“I thought we were scrappy in sets one and two, and then our serve got a little lax,” Olmstead explained. “Once that happened, [San Diego] got life and then they ran with it.”

Olmstead, however, did not minimize the impact the seniors, especially middle blocker Heather Gneiting, who has been with the program since 2018, have had on the program’s growth.

“We have some great leadership and players who love playing for BYU and for each other,” Olmstead stated. “We owe a lot to these seniors, and I’m grateful for their contributions and we’re excited to see how much more they can contribute before the season’s over.”

And it’s certainly not over — the Cougars have known for a while they are likely locked into an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament.

Where they go? That will be determined at 5:30p.m. on Sunday on ESPNU.

“We talk about it all year, where this is an opportunity to match up against the best teams in the country,” she commented. “The excitement gives you that hunger, and I’m excited to see how this group responds.”

It also helps the Cougars are getting healthy at the right time. Olmstead said Bower’s return was huge, but the contribution by reserve setter Abby Taylor — also a senior — was bigger in keeping the continuity on offense and behind the service line.

“We’re starting to get healthy heading into the most important time of the year,” she said. “Our team did what they needed to do these last seven matches, but Abby got us to the spot where we were tonight. It was a total team effort these last two months.”

As for a potential future series with San Diego? Olmstead said she’s open to the idea.

“Jen [Petrie] does a great job with her program, and if we can continue the relationships we have with the West Coast Conference teams, it would be great to have them back to play or go to their gyms.”

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