As the BYU men's volleyball team enters its second season under Tom Peterson, the Cougars already have experience at the Final Four. BYU kicks off the 2004 season against Pepperdine in Malibu, Calif. on Jan. 9 and 10 in a non-conference match-up and meets Cal-State Northridge at home Jan. 16 and 17 to begin conference action.
Last season the team (23-7) showed tremendous composure, beating Penn State in the NCAA semifinals and battling Lewis in the championship match. Lewis edged the Cougars in the last two points of the fifth game, earning its first NCAA title.
"My first year at BYU was a great experience, a great year," Peterson said. "Although it's disappointing to lose, and it will hurt for awhile after seeing such good players lose, the players made it great for me to be here. I'm proud of what the team accomplished."
And the team is looking good going into the 2004 season. Even with the loss of three outside hitters, Rafael Paal, Jaime Mayol and Luka Slabe, the biggest strength for the Cougars this year continues to be their depth. BYU returns nine letterswinners and five players with significant starting experience. The Cougars hope to continue its winning tradition and return to the NCAA finals.
"I'm excited about the team cohesion and depth in place before the season starts," Peterson said. "We have strong leadership from our seven seniors and if we can stay healthy, we will be in position as a top team."
The following position-by-position look at the 2004 Cougars illustrates the potential for this year's team:
This position has suffered a loss with graduating seniors, but will be filled with a number of players: Chris Gorny, Jon Alleman, Fernando Pessoa and Steffin Rangel.
Gorny, an All-MPSF selection his sophomore year, finished the regular season ranked 10th in the MPSF for blocking and second on the team for blocking with 90 blocks on the season. Gorny, a senior who started last season as a middle blocker, will see action as an outside hitter because of his athleticism and good arm swing. He hit over .500 percent in eight matches, including a personal-best .846 in the MPSF semifinal against No. 2 Hawa`i. Switching to another postion will be tough, but he has shown excellent potential in the preseason matches this year.
Jon Alleman, a second-team All-American and All-MPSF selection, was also a large contributor for BYU last year, recording double-digit kills in 25 of 30 matches. He led BYU in kills per game and kills on the season as an opposite-side hitter and posted two 30-kill matches. As a senior, Alleman returns to the squad as an experienced force for the Cougars, as he was a member of the 2001 national championship team. He will be a potential starter in the outside-hitter position and a big contributor for the team.
Fernando Pessoa, an All-MPSF selection and member of the 2001 national championship team, is another candidate to play outside hitter this season. Pessoa, a senior from Brazil, started as libero for the Cougars last season and led the team in digs per game (2.20). According to Peterson, "he has been working hard on the outside, plus he's one of our best passers and brings NCAA experience as our starting libero."
Steffin Rangel is a sophomore who saw limited action last season, but his tremendous jumping ability will allow him to be a valuable asset for the Cougars. With more experience, Rangel will rotate in the line-up and add depth for the outside position. He has been posting kills in preseason matches
Senior Joe Hillman leads the parade of opposite-side hitters, as he will replace Alleman on the rightside. Hillman will be joined by redshirt freshman Enoc Cardona and sophomore Taylor Evans, making this position a strength to the Cougar offense.
Hillman, a transfer from Utah Valley State College, returns his senior year as the probable starter in the opposite position. Hillman competed in 21 games last season and recorded a personal-best .667 hitting percent (7-1-9) against Concordia. As a left-handed hitter, he has an advantage because the rightside saves him from having to hit across his body.
Redshirt freshman Enoc Cardona joins BYU for his first season. Cardona, a native of Puerto Rico, played for the San Juan club team back home and was a part of the 2002 Puerto Rican National Team that took second in the NORSECA tournament in Canada. Peterson says Cardona is one of the most physical players on the team who could reach over 11'9" when he first came to BYU.
Taylor Evans, a sophomore who had shoulder surgery last season, has seen some playing time with the Cougars in preseason matches. Evans is one of the shorter players on the team but makes up for it with his jumping ability and power. He is a versatile player who can play outside or opposite and will be able to step in where he is needed in the line-up.
The middle blocker position was hit with a huge blow and will be shuffled around this season due to injuries. Seniors Dave Hyte and Cory Carpenter will be competing for time on the court this season.
Mike Burke is returning as an All-MPSF selection, but will miss most of the season due to an injury. He was en route to become the top blocker in the nation and a strong force in the middle with his height and consistent hitting percentage. In 14 matches of last season, Burke hit over a .500 and ranked third in conference for hitting percentage.
Dave Hyte is another strong middle, who played last season behind Chris Gorny and rotated in when Gorny broke his hand. He registered a personal-best .750 hitting percentage against Penn State and has worked hard despite injuries in the preseason.
Cory Carpenter joins Burke and Hyte in the middle position and is gaining experience fast throughout the preseason matches. Carpenter has limited time playing in matches but has used his athleticism to learn fast and be a contributor for the Cougars.
All-American Carlos Moreno performed well as the starting setter for the Cougars for his second year, and will be a huge strength for the Cougars. As a sophomore, Moreno recorded the second-highest assists (1567) in BYU men's volleyball history for a single season. He also finished second on the team in serving with 33 aces, and added 123 digs and 102 kills.
Not only is he one of the best setters in the nation, Moreno ranked third at BYU in blocking with 87 blocks on the season. Peterson is looking for Moreno to be even better this season with the experience he gained from last year and continue to be a leader on the court. Sophomore Rob Neilson looks strong in preseason matches and will compete for playing time behind Moreno.
Senior Shawn Olmstead did very well last season as libero alongside Fernando Pessoa, but will probably be the lone libero for the 2004 season. Olmstead, a member of the 2001 National Championships team, registered 14 assists and 70 digs last season and recorded a season-best 12 digs against Pacific. He finished last season averaging 1.43 digs per game and will be a strong force behind the Cougar defense for the 2004 season.
Pessoa, who will see action as an outside hitter, finished eighth last season in the MPSF and sixteenth in the NCAA for defensive digs with 51 on the season. As a sophomore, he recorded a personal-best 13 digs against No.1 UCLA, and then broke his own record two days later with 16 digs against UCLA.
Peterson said injuries have hindered some players in preseason practice, but they will be rested in time for the 2004 season.
And with so much depth at every position, Peterson will be able to pick from a variety of athletes to fill each position. During the preseason the team has worked with different lineups, and the coaches are still deciding which will work the best for them.
"I'm not that concerned about our offense," Peterson said. "We run a complicated offense with many options for hitting. If we can get guys to stay healthy and compete in practice, we will be able to work on what we need to and rank as a top team in the nation."
The depth at each position continues to be the team's greatest strength and will prove beneficial on long road trips and when the team plays a lot of matches in a short period of time. The Cougars begin the regular season at the Pepperdine tournament, playing both matches against Pepperdine in a preseason showdown.
The team will play its first conference matches at home against Cal State Northridge, Jan 16-17 at the Smith Fieldhouse. The team will count on all of its players to have a good start to the season.
"The team chemistry has grown to be a strength for us and will help us this season," Peterson said. "Everyone works hard together and are all focused on the same goals-playing the best we can play."
The Cougars face a tough schedule in a tough conference, with matches lined up against defending national champion Lewis University, Pepperdine, USC and Stanford at home.
In addition to facing top teams like Long Beach State and Hawai`i on the road, BYU will visit UC San Diego, UCLA, Ohio State and UC Irvine.
"We have a good team. We have a chance of finishing high in the conference this season," Peterson said. "The conference competition is brutal, but if we put it all together at the right time, we have as good a chance as anybody."