BYU women’s volleyball middle blocker Heather Gneiting is helping build the future by being ‘the ultimate competitor’

A competitor can be a leader?

Some argue that is becoming harder to find — just not on the BYU women’s volleyball team.

Not when that person has, according to her coach, a heavy arm and quick feet. With that comes a never-say-die attitude and a ‘next-ball’ mentality that allows her to be assertive on and off the court.

One of her teammates says those qualities are what makes middle blocker Heather Gneiting a true leader: confidence with a competitive spirit.

It’s that spirit and leadership that will hopefully carry the Cougars to another level — eventually to another Final Four, and then hopefully, a national championship.

‘The ultimate competitor

Gneiting is one of the two remaining players from the team that went to the NCAA women’s volleyball Final Four in 2018 under head coach Heather Olmstead. Gneiting, a native of Pleasant Grove, said she’s looked at every opportunity as a blessing.

“You don’t know if you’ll get a serious injury in the future or a teammate may leave the next week,” Gneiting said. “Cherishing the relationships I’ve had, and always being a learner, it’s always helped me to grow and to problem-solve.”

That ability to problem-solve stemmed from her time as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Seattle.

“Just asking yourself what you can bring to a certain situation and learning how to do that was a great blessing for me,” Gneiting said about her time as a missionary. “I feel like I see volleyball different because of it too— not just as a sport, but as an opportunity to grow and learn every day.”

Coach Heather Olmstead gives final instructions to her team before their match against San Francisco. Heather Gneiting is at right of Olmstead. (BYU Photo)

Olmstead said she has seen that play out time and again on the court over Gneiting’s time in Provo. “Heather knows what she wants,” she stated. “She wants to be a high performer and wants to be there for her teammates.”

It’s that high level of performance that junior outside hitter Erin Livingston calls Gneiting “the ultimate competitor.”

“Since the first year I came in to now, she has grown so much in confidence and being leader,” Livingston said. “I know all of us look up to her and love playing with her.”

One example came earlier this year. Gneiting committed four hitting errors in a row at one point against then-No. 17 Pepperdine, and yet she still racked up three service aces and got in on six of the eight Cougar blocks in the scrappy, marathon match against the Waves.

“She is full of energy and fire no matter the situation,” Livingston said. “I know I can always look at (Heather) and see confidence and belief in her eyes.”

Gneiting said she credited it to her “next ball” mentality at the time, but her coach states that’s always Gneiting’s mindset. “She knows that if she doesn’t make that play, she’s got an opportunity to make the next one,” Olmstead said. “For whatever struggles she may have during a match, she still wants to be there for the team. That’s how she’s been her whole career.”

A career built from culture

That career draws roots from her father, Tom, who played basketball at BYU from 1984 to 1987, having gone to the NCAA Tournament in his freshman and senior year. Heather said she wanted to come because she understood it would be a place for her to grow and progress, not only in volleyball, but in life.

“I’ve loved coming to BYU ever since I was a little girl, especially the culture,” Gneiting recalled. “I knew it was a great school, but I also knew if I came here, I would be surrounded by people who would make me better.”

Heather Gneiting and coach Heather Olmstead discuss Gneiting’s growth and contributions from her first year to senior year.

Little did Gneiting know she would end up being part of a team that went to the NCAA Final Four in her freshman year.

The Cougars won their first 27 games in 2018 en route to a memorable run that saw BYU beat traditional powers Texas and Florida at a raucous Smith Fieldhouse in the regionals before falling to Stanford at the national semifinals in Minneapolis.

Gneiting said the biggest lesson she’s learned from that Final Four run was the value of hard work, which carried over to her mission.

However, she also learned something the hard way: “Anyone can beat anyone on any given night,” she recalled.

It held true as BYU was stunned in 2019 by in-state rival Utah in a second-round sweep in the NCAA tournament — the same team that the Cougars swept the year before on the way to the Final Four.

“Each year is different, but since then, we know taking it one game at time and even learning from our practices is more important than ever before,” Gneiting said.

A foundation for the future

It’s that same growth mindset that the Cougars will need heading into the Big 12 next year, and Gneiting said that mindset is what gives this team potential.

“I’m really excited to see what we can do (in the Big 12),” Gneiting said. “And by just taking it one game at a time, I know we can get there.”

And even though Gneiting will be watching from afar next season, Olmstead knows she is laying a foundation, along with the other seniors on the team, for others to follow in the program’s future.

The challenge Olmstead gives for those future players is simple — and it’s to follow what Gneiting does best.

“It’s not just going to happen. If you want to be one of the best in the country, you’ve got to show up and do the work,” she stated. “You’ve got to make it happen.”

One of those young guns that is making it happen right now following that example is Livingston. The sophomore from Corona, California is hitting .289 this season, ranking third on the team behind Gneiting, who is hitting .307.

She credits her growth to Gneiting and her leadership. “[Heather] is such an amazing teammate and I feel so blessed that I’ve gotten to play and learn from her,” Livingston said. “She is the ultimate competitor.”

So, a competitor can be a leader.

They just need, as Olmstead explained, to make it happen.

Livingston is certainly following that blueprint, and now hopefully, others will, too.

And once that happens, the Big 12 will know just how great it is to be a BYU Cougar.

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