Despite the loss of four seniors including two-time All-American rightside hitter Korie Rogers, the 1999 BYU women's volleyball team is poised to once again challenge for a berth in the NCAA Final Four as one of the nation's top teams.
"We have five veteran players returning this year and some talented young players that will help us fill the holes from last year," said BYU coach Elaine Michaelis, second all-time in Division I victories with 813. "We have the potential to be very good. I'm excited to see how our team comes together."
For each of the past three seasons, coach Michaelis' squad has come within one victory of making its second trip to the NCAA Final Four, something it did in 1993. In 1999, Michaelis has eight letterwinners returning, including an All-American setter and four all-conference performers, from a team that posted a 31-4 record and a fifth-place tie in the NCAA tournament in 1998. Ranked sixth in the final polls last year, the Cougars enter this season ranked No. 7 in the AVCA preseason poll.
AVCA All-American setter Anna-Lena Smith and NCAA blocking champion Nina Puikkonen are two players who could make 1999 a magical year for the Cougars. A proven leader, Smith will make sure the Cougar offense is clicking on all cylinders. After tossing up more than 1,500 passes to set up Cougar points last year, the four-year starter needs 772 assists in 1999 to become BYU's all-time assist leader, surpassing current U.S. Volleyball Team member Charlene Johnson Tagaloa. Meanwhile, Puikkonen was the nation's most dominating defensive presence at the net blocking 2.17 attempts per game while boasting a .341 hitting percentage and 3.18 kills per game in her freshman season. The 6-foot-3 middle blocker joined Smith and Rogers on the CoSida District VII team last year and looks to have an equally impressive sophomore season in 1999.
Other key players returning include All-WAC performers Melissa Layton and Mari Carpenter. Layton played middle blocker last year but will likely be called upon to fill Rogers' shoes at rightside. As evidenced by her outstanding performances during the team's trip to Europe this summer, the versatile and explosive Layton is prepared to improve upon her all-conference efforts of a year ago. The 6-foot-4 Carpenter averaged 3.16 kills per game and hit .345 last season after transferring from Ricks College. She should continue to provide offensive firepower from her outside hitter position.
Caroline Bower will return to the outside hitter position for her senior year to help fill the void left by Helen Hjorth. A key defensive contributor last season after suffering a knee injury her sophomore year, Bower is the heart of the Cougar team. She will be a vital part of the Cougar block and is the team's strongest passer. Sophomore s Alyssa Barrus and Jackie Bundy are talented middle blockers that will take on bigger roles along with outside hitters Amy Rhead and Natalie Whittaker.
"We will have a lot of options offensively and have one of the country's premier setters in Anna-Lena," Michaelis said. "We will need to pass well and get key contributions from some of our young players such as Natalie, Alyssa and Jackie."
Redshirt freshmen Martha Brinton, setter; Emily Kennedy, defensive specialist; and Lindsey O'Reilly, outside hitter; add depth along with four incoming freshmen from the high school ranks. U.S. Junior National team member Sunny Tonga headlines a strong recruiting class signed by Michaelis in 1999. Tonga, a 6-foot-2 talent who could play rightside, outside or setter, has the potential to become a contributing cog in the Cougar machine in her first season. Carrie Bowers, a 6-foot-2 rightside hitter, Karina Puikkonen, a 6-foot setter/rightside hitter, and Michelle Otteson, a 5-foot-7 defensive specialist, fill out a talented Cougar roster.
In their quest to reach the Final Four in 1999, the Cougars will look to become the first-ever champions of the new Mountain West Conference. BYU will host the inaugural MWC tournament in late November at the Smith Fieldhouse.
The Cougars open the non-conference schedule Sept. 3 and 4 in Athens, Ga., at the Georgia Invitational where the Cougars will take on Toledo, Michigan and host Georgia. After traveling cross country, BYU will play in its second tournament, facing Houston and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. Utah State and No. 12 Pepperdine come to Provo for BYU's first two home matches Sept. 17 and 18.
With 17 road matches on its schedule, including a date with No. 2 ranked Stanford and Cal in late September, BYU will be challenged in 1999. The Cougars will play their first Mountain West Conference contest at Air Force Oct. 1 and end the season regular season Nov. 19 and 20 at home against Wyoming and No. 24 Colorado State. During the conference season, BYU will sneak in away dates with Weber State, No. 15 Arizona and Arizona State and a home match-up with Notre Dame.
"We play a lot of games on the road this year and have some top quality teams on our schedule," Michaelis said. "If we are able to stay healthy and get key contributions from our young players, we hope to come out of the season prepared to make a run in the NCAA Tournament."