Coach Elaine Michaelis and her Cougar team look to extend a string of 26 consecutive 20-win seasons this year with two All-Americans returning among eight letterwinners and three starters from last year's 28-5 squad.
This year's team returns five athletes with significant experience and several other returning players and newcomers who have the potential to help the Cougars challenge for the Mountain West Conference title and make another run in the NCAA tournament. Hitting and blocking will again be the Cougars' strength in 2000 while inexperience at the setter position is the team's biggest question mark after losing all-time assist leader Anna-Lena Smith to graduation.
Headlining the Cougar roster in 2000 is two-time All-American middle blocker Nina Puikkonen. Leading the nation as a freshman and finishing third nationally last year in blocking, Puikkonen is a dominating presence in the middle. The 6-3 junior was a unanimous selection as the inaugural Mountain West Conference Player of the Year last season while leading the conference in blocks (1.85), kills (4.29) and hitting (.373).
Another player expected to have a big season is sophomore Sunny Tonga. The Volleyball magazine Freshman All-America pick was the Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year in 1999. And she may have just given Cougar fans a glimpse of her potential while only playing in 68 of BYU's 110 games last year. A versatile athlete and powerful hitter, the 6-2 Tonga will play rightside for the Cougars in 2000. She finished fourth in the MWC last year in hitting with a .346 attack percentage, which included a 10-0-11 effort at Wyoming to set a BYU single-match record .909 hitting percentage.
A second-team all-conference middle blocker as a sophomore, senior Melissa Layton primarily played the rightside last season. This year she returns to the outside, where she played as a freshman. Having played three positions in three years, the 6-1 Layton gives the Cougars valuable experience and a jump-serve that provided 0.44 services aces per game last year - second-best in the MWC.
Junior middle blocker Jackie Bundy and junior outside hitter Natalie Whittaker are also experienced players returning in 2000. The 6-1 Bundy proved she is among the top middles in the conference in her first season of extending playing time, finishing fifth in the conference with 1.28 blocks per game while averaging more than two digs and two kills per game. The 6-0 Whittaker played in 107 of 110 games last year as a key backrow player. She responded as one of the team's top passers and came up with 1.69 digs per game.
Complementing BYU's five experienced returnees are three other returning letterwinners. Junior Alyssa Barrus, a 6-2 middle blocker, hit .255 in 19 games last year while sophomores Michelle Otteson, a 5-6 defensive specialist, and Martha Brinton, a 5-10 setter, played in six and eight games, respectively.
Three athletes who redshirted in 1999 could play a significant role. Kalani Tonga, a 6-0 junior and the older sister of Sunny, sat out last season after transferring from Utah, where she earned first-team all-conference honors as an outside hitter. Redshirt freshmen Carrie Bowers, a 6-2 middle blocker, and Karina Puikkonen, a 6-0 setter, have shown the talents to be contributors in their first seasons on the floor. Bowers was among the nation's top recruits a year ago and Puikkonen, the younger sister of Nina, has the size and talent to help fill the setter position.
Newcomers on this year's team include two Volleyball magazine Fab-50 recruits and a Hawaii player of the year. Lindsey Steele, a 6-0 outside hitter from Orem, Utah, Becky Warnick, a 5-11 outside from Coto de Caza, Calif., and Uila Crabbe, a 5-7 defensive specialist/setter from Mililani, Hawaii, round out the talented 2000 Cougar roster.
As long as Nina Puikkonen is in the middle the Cougars will consider this position among its greatest strengths. The reigning MWC Player of the Year had another All-America season last year, placing third in the nation in blocks at 1.85 per game and 18th in hitting with a .373 attack percentage. She lead the nation in blocking as a freshman while becoming the first person in five years to average more than two blocks per game. She is joined by fellow starter and junior Jackie Bundy, who placed fifth in the conference with 1.28 blocks per game while hitting .251, averaging 2.35 kills and 2.10 digs per game. Junior Alyssa Barrus, who hit .255 and averaged 0.89 blocks in 19 games last year, provides depth along with redshirt freshman Carrie Bowers.
A mixture of experience and new talent will fill the outside positions for the Cougars in 2000. The name Tonga could be called upon frequently this season with MWC Freshman of the Year Sunny Tonga being joined by her older sister Kalani, a former first-team all-conference outside at Utah. A sophomore, Sunny will be the Cougars' primary presence on the rightside while Kalani, a junior, looks to be part of the rotation on the outside. Senior Melissa Layton, perhaps the hardest hitter on the team, will work the outside this season after seeing some time there last year as well as during her freshman season. Junior Natalie Whittaker, primarily a backrow specialist, could get some swings along with incoming freshmen Lindsey Steele and Becky Warnick. In addition to backing up in the middle, Barrus and Bowers will provide some depth on the rightside.
The Cougars are inexperienced at this key position after losing the services of four-year starter, All-American and all-time BYU assist leader Anna-Lena Smith. Sophomore Martha Brinton has been in the Cougar program for two years including a redshirt season, but she has only eight games of on-court experience on her resume. She had 22 assists (2.75 assists per game) in mop-up duty behind Smith last year. Redshirt freshman Karina Puikkonen will battle Brinton for the starting setting duties while true freshman Uila Crabbe could also contribute.
Junior Natalie Whittaker played a vital role for the Cougars last year on the backrow, providing solid defense and passing while playing in 107 of 110 games. She will play an equally important role this year, especially with the departure of the team's top passer and first-team all-conference player, Caroline Bower. Sophomore Michelle Otteson will likely see more time this year after played in six games last season, and freshman Uila Crabbe is a talented newcomer.
Mountain West Conference
The reigning regular season champions, BYU should again be among the top contenders for the Mountain West Conference title as the league enters its second season. Recording a 13-1 conference mark in 1999, BYU suffered its lone conference loss at Colorado State, who also upset the Cougars in the MWC Tournament Finals in Provo to end a string of 12 straight BYU wins. A strong Utah team will join the Rams and Cougars in 2000. All three teams earned NCAA Tournament berths last year with Colorado State being ranked 12th, BYU 13th and Utah 29th in the final AVCA poll. Rated the third-best volleyball conference last year, the MWC will be strong again this season with UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico looking to be significantly improved. The MWC Tournament will be hosted by Colorado State in Fort Collins Nov. 16-18.
The Cougars will play one of the nation's toughest schedules in 2000. Fifteen of BYU's 27 regular season matches will be against teams who qualified for last year's NCAA tournament. Of those, 11 matches pit the Cougars against teams who were ranked in the AVCA/USA Today final poll, including four teams rated in the top 10. Two teams, Stanford and Long Beach State, advanced to the NCAA Final Four with the Cardinal earning national runner-up status.
After playing 18 away matches last year, the Cougars open on the road again this season but will play a more manageable 12 regular season contests away from the friendly confines of the Smith Fieldhouse. BYU faces Clemson, ranked 23rd in last year's final poll, in the opener at the Notre Dame Invitational on Sept. 1 before meeting the tournament host Irish the next evening.
After returning to Provo for the home opener against No. 19-ranked Kansas State, BYU will host the Mizuno Classic, which features four opponents who combined for a 115-24 record last season. No. 2 Stanford (31-3) and No. 4 Long Beach State (31-4) were NCAA Final Four teams while Fairfield (30-4) and Oral Roberts (23-13) won their respective conferences. After a trip to Logan to face Utah State, the Cougars return to Provo for five straight home matches that include No. 14 Arizona, Temple, Weber State and the opening Mountain West Conference matches.
The Cougars return to the road to play probably their toughest conference away matches of the season, sandwiching No. 12 Colorado State and rival Utah around Wyoming. While finishing the conference schedule, the Cougars detour slightly to Malibu, Calif., for a return match with No. 10 Pepperdine. Last year the Cougars set a new attendance mark while defeating the highly regarded Waves 3-2 in Provo. After the MWC tournament in Fort Collins Nov. 16-18, BYU will return to California to face No. 6 UC Santa Barbara Thanksgiving week. NCAA tournament play begins Dec. 1.
Coach Elaine Michaelis Quotes
"I don't know how good we will be early on because we've got a lot to learn by experience while breaking in a new setter. Breaking in a new setter is like breaking in a new quarterback in football. Although we are very young at the setter position, we have a lot of potential at that position too. Martha (Brinton) and Karina (Puikkonen) both are talented. I'm confident both of them can do the job."
"Our passing should improved this year, which will help the new setter until she gets more experience. I expect us to block well again and to be a good hitting team. Nina and Sunny are both All-America caliber players."
"We play an outstanding schedule this year. Our home fans will see some great teams, including two teams in last year's NCAA Final Four. We also face some very tough teams on the road, including several ranked in the top 10. Our preseason schedule isn't ideal for breaking in a new setter but we're excited. This is what we do every year - play great teams. "
"The Mountain West Conference will be tough this year. Colorado State is very good and should be the favorite. Utah will be strong and several other teams are really improved."