PROVO — Collegiate sports don't provide many names bigger than Texas, Michigan and Florida, but when it comes to the regional round of the NCAA women's volleyball tournament, all of them are underdogs. The favorite is the No. 4-seeded BYU Cougars, a team that last Saturday punched a ticket to the round of 16 for the seventh straight season.
Although this year, it's a bit different.
For starters, BYU is hosting one of the four regional semifinal rounds for the first time since 1986, back when the tournament included just 32 teams. Doing as much is a big advantage for any team, but perhaps particularly so for the Cougars, when considering the altitude factor, the Smith Fieldhouse home atmosphere and the fact they haven't lost a home tournament match since 1994.
Just ask Florida (26-6), an accomplished team that advanced clear to the championship match last season, yet took to the podium during Thursday's press conference readily assuming an underdog role as it prepares to take on BYU (29-1) Friday at 4:30 p.m. MST.
"We understand the challenge that's ahead of us Friday night," said Florida coach Mary Wise. "...It will be a huge challenge for us playing a team that talented, that well-coached on their home court, but this group has embraced the underdog mentality."
Yes, BYU is the decided favorite, having only lost its final match of the regular season while defeating top teams such as Stanford and USC. It's arrived as such through the play of top performers Roni-Jones Perry, Mary Lake and Lyndie Haddock-Eppich, all three of whom took to the podium on Thursday, much as they've done after BYU's previous two tournament wins.
While all three headliners are worthy of the limelight, each of them, along with BYU coach Heather Olmstead is quick to credit those who don't receive as much notice. Players like seniors Danelle Stetler and Sydnie Martindale and Kiani Moea'i, all of whom take on roles similar to offensive linemen on football teams in that they rarely catch notice, yet are absolutely essential to the team's overall success.
"We have a roster full of great team players that are ready to step up at any time," Olmstead said. "Danelle is one of those players who has been asked to play many different roles this year and has done a great job...really it's a team effort. Everyone is involved and it takes all 18 of us."
Olmstead's 18 players have formed a team with few weaknesses that top teams, such as the Gators, can exploit. Jones-Perry has led a fearsome Cougar offensive attack, but has also contributed heavily to a defense that has seemingly stepped up a level toward the end of the year and into the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
"We've spent a lot of time — basically all season, working on our eye-work and our footwork, and our hand-work for blocking," Olmstead said. "...That's what it's for. For these moments in the tournament when you can just rely on your training and go back to what you've been taught."
Leading the defensive charge has been junior libero Mary Lake, who came on strong as a freshman, proving to be one of the best in the country at her position throughout her three years played.
As mentioned, this is the first time for BYU hosting a regional round, something the players relish this late in the year.
"Not having to travel and being able to be in our classes and stuff like that has been really helpful at this point of the semester," Jones-Perry said. "But when the match starts tomorrow, volleyball is just volleyball and having our fanbase here will be awesome, but it will come down to who plays better volleyball."12 comments on this story
"Florida is a great opponent and they're very well-coached," Olmstead said. "They have big, tall athletes. They have three offensive options the whole match, as far as we can tell, and I think they're a good serving team and they pass well. I think it's going to be a great match."
Friday's match will be streamed live on ESPN3, along with the Texas-Michigan match, which will start at 2 p.m. MST. The winners of both matches advance to play in the round of eight Saturday night at 6 p.m. MST.