Nina Puikkonen (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
Returning four all-conference players and a first-team All-American, BYU enters the 2001 season with high hopes of improving upon last year's 26-7 team that won the Mountain West Conference Tournament title and advanced to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
Coach Elaine Michaelis returns eight letterwinners, including five of her top seven players from last season. With two talented redshirt freshmen and a high school and junior college All-American among its five newcomers, BYU is poised to deliver Michaelis her 28th consecutive 20-win season, contend for the Mountain West Conference title and be among the nation's top-rated teams. The Cougars enter the season ranked 11th in the USA Today/AVCA Preseason Coaches Poll and 10th in the Volleyball magazine poll.
The 2001 Cougars are led by first-team AVCA All-American middle blocker Nina Puikkonen and NCAA All-West Region rightside hitter Sunny Tonga Mahe. Mahe will be a junior in 2001 while Puikkonen is one of three seniors returning with significant court experience. She is joined by fellow seniors Jackie Bundy, an All-MWC middle blocker who finished 12th nationally in blocking last year, and Natalie Whittaker, BYU's top reserve last season. The Cougars also return setter Karina Puikkonen, who earned all-conference honors last year as a freshman.
While Michaelis returns four all-conference starters, she will need to replace the services of starting outside hitters Melissa Layton and Kalani Tonga. Reserve middle blocker Alyssa Barrus and backup setter Martha Brinton also won't return in 2001. Both players decided to leave on an 18-month mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with Barrus serving in Washington, D.C. and Brinton in Switzerland.
Whittaker, junior transfer Allison Holston Larson and the redshirt freshman tandem of Lindsey Steele and Becky Warnick all are talented players with the potential to fill the void left on the outside. A solid freshmen recruiting class join sophomore Carrie Bowers (middle blocker/rightside hitter), sophomore Uila Crabbe (defensive specialist) and junior Michelle Mahaffey (defensive specialist) to provide Michaelis with a strong supporting cast.
Last year, the Cougars were ranked second nationally in blocking and eighth in hitting and should continue to excel in those categories in 2001. With Karina Puikkonen having a year of experience on her resume and setting many of the same hitters, BYU's offense should again be one of the nation's most potent. The Cougar block could be the nation's best with Puikkonen and Bundy in the middle.
The following position-by-position look at the Cougars gives further insight into what might transpire on the court for BYU in 2001.
The middle is the strength of the Cougar lineup with All-American Nina Puikkonen and All-America candidate Jackie Bundy roaming the net. A candidate for national player of the year honors, Puikkonen has ranked among the nation's top three blockers statistically in each of her three seasons. She averaged 1.88 blocks last year to finish second nationally while Bundy placed 12th with 1.58 blocks per game. Both seniors are strong hitters with Puikkonen averaging 4.13 kills per game and Bundy 2.88 last year. Sophomore Carrie Bowers could get some time in a reserve role. A Fab 50 recruit, Bowers is an athletic player who has had trouble finding time behind BYU's talented middles. Bowers played in only four games last year but has the potential to step in and play a significant role if called upon. Junior transfer Allison Holsten Larson, a junior college All-American, could also see some time in the middle. Additional middles include incoming freshman Lexi Brown and Erin Webb.
The rightside position is set with the return of All-West Region hitter Sunny Tonga Mahe, but the Cougar left side will take on a different look in 2001. Mahe is an All-America candidate who hit .324 last year while averaging 3.14 kills, 1.63 digs and 1.15 blocks per game. Perhaps BYU's most versatile athlete, she could also play the outside or setter positions. Sophomore Carrie Bowers will play a reserve role behind Mahe at rightside. Several players will have a chance to fill the starting outside hitter positions vacated by last year's starters Melissa Layton and Kalani Tonga. Senior Natalie Whittaker started much of her sophomore season as a defensive specialist and played mostly a defensive role last year but will get more swings at an outside spot in 2001. Redshirt freshmen Becky Warnick and Lindsey Steele have shown good potential and will compete for time on the outside. Both players have the talent to make a solid contribution to the Cougar attack. Another factor could be junior transfer Allison Holsten Larson, who can play on the outside or in the middle. The junior college All-American hit .432 while averaging 4.66 kills, 3.79 digs and 1.40 blocks last year at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Wash. Another possible outside is freshman Lauren Richard. Although she played setter on the U.S. Junior National Team, Richards played outside in high school where she was an All-American and two-time state MVP at Timpanogos High School in Orem, Utah.
Last year the Cougars entered the season with no clear-cut favorite to take over for BYU's all-time assist leader Anna-Lena Smith. Karina Puikkonen, however, quickly proved she would not only take over the position but also put up numbers that rivaled the two-time All-American. As a redshirt freshman last year, Puikkonen set BYU to the eighth-best team attack percentage in the country and was a strong blocking presence, helping BYU rank second nationally. She was named All-MWC while averaging 12.68 assists, 1.22 kills, 1.59 digs and 0.98 blocks per game. She also hit .290, the third best percentage on the team. Seemingly the clear choice to set the BYU attack again in 2001, Puikkonen will receive competition from incoming freshman Lauren Richards, the setter on the U.S. Junior National Team. Richards, who like Puikkonen has the size and versatility to also play elsewhere, is among the nation's most prized recruits, rating 12th on Volleyball magazine's Fab 50 list.
Senior Natalie Whittaker has played a vital role on the backrow the past two seasons but will likely move into a full-time role as a hitter. Specialists on the backrow for the 2001 season will include sophomore Uila Crabbe, junior Michelle Mahaffey and freshman Krystal Curtis. Crabbe appeared in 16 matches last year, including each of BYU's final six matches, and proved she is ready for more action in 2001. The former Hawaii Player of the Year had a career-high 16 digs at Pepperdine in 2000. Mahaffey appeared in six matches as a sophomore, including BYU's upset of No. 1 Stanford. Curtis was defensive all-region at Timpanogos High School in Orem, Utah. Both could be called upon for spot duty.
MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE
The reigning Mountain West Conference Tournament Champions, BYU will again be among the top contenders for the MWC title. The Cougars have a 25-3 regular season record in two years of MWC play after finishing second in 2000 with a 12-2 mark. The Cougars won the inaugural regular season title in 1999 with a 13-1 record before finishing second to Colorado State at the MWC tournament. The Rams won the regular season title last year with a 13-1 record, with the lone loss coming at BYU. The Cougars went on to win last year's MWC Tournament title in Fort Collins, Colo., avenging both regular season conference losses with wins over Utah and Colorado State, ending the Rams' nation-best 44-match home winning streak. The Cougars, Rams and Utes were all top-20 teams in 2000 and should again compete for the conference title. San Diego State was on the bubble of the NCAA tournament last year and could factor into the title hunt. BYU will host the 2001 MWC Tournament, Nov. 15-17, at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo.
BYU boasts a typically strong schedule that includes many of the nation's top teams. The Cougars will face 10 teams that qualified for last year's NCAA tournament in a minimum of 12 matches during their 2001 regular season schedule. Eight of those 10 teams won an NCAA tournament match last year with Hawaii advancing to the NCAA Final Four. UC Santa Barbara had its run end with a regional final loss to Hawaii while Long Beach State and Colorado State each earned regional semifinal appearances. Utah, Cal Poly, Colorado, and Utah State made it to the second round while Loyola Marymount and Sacramento State earned a spot in the big dance. Other 2001 non-conference opponents include Texas, who has appeared in 17 of 20 NCAA tournaments and is sixth all-time with 38 NCAA tournament wins, Washington, Purdue, Rhode Island and Southwest Missouri State. BYU will play 12 regular season matches at home, including UC Santa Barbara, and also hosts the 2001 MWC tournament at the Smith Fieldhouse. In addition to the MWC tournament, BYU will host Colorado and Southwest Missouri State in the annual BYU Mizuno Classic. The Cougars also play in the University of Washington's invitational, which also features Texas and Purdue, and travels to Hawaii to face the host Wahine and Loyola Marymount in September. In November, BYU plays in the Long Beach Thanksgiving Tournament, which also includes Cal Poly SLO. The Cougars will play a total of 12 away matches and four neutral site matches to complete its 28-match regular season schedule.
Women's volleyball will take on a different look in 2001 with several new rule changes. The National Association for Girls and Women in Sports, the official rules-making body for women's collegiate volleyball, released the changes in its "2001-2002 NAGWS Official Rules, Interpretations & Officiating Rulebook." The most noticeable difference this season will be the move from sideout volleyball to a rally scoring format where each play will result in a point. The first four games will be scored to 30 points, with the winner holding a two-point lead. The fifth and deciding game will be played to 15 with the winner leading by two points. Other significant changes involve the serve. Players must serve the ball within eight seconds after the referee authorizes service and will not be allowed a second toss for service. Further, the collegiate game will mimic the international game with the let serve. A served ball will remain in play if it hits the net and continues its path to the opposition's court. A service ace can be earned if the ball falls to the opposition's side of the court on the serve, despite contact with the net on service. The international pursuit rule was also added as an experimental rule for the upcoming season, and can be implemented in a match by agreement of both coaches. The rule allows for a player to retrieve a ball (on second contact) that has crossed the plane of the net to the opponent's free space, provided that player does not touch the opponent's court and sends the ball back to their court, over or outside the antennas, for an opportunity for the third contact.