Head coach Karen Lamb saw the injuries mount over course of the season as the Cougars finished the year 14-19. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
An Untraditional Season for a Tradition-Rich Program
PROVO -- A surprising off-season move in 2002 led to the most unexpected of seasons for the BYU women's volleyball team. Coaching icon Elaine Michaelis retired from coaching in June, after 40 consecutive winning seasons. With that her successor, Karen Lamb, the program's first-ever All-American, faced a daunting challenge.
Although it ended the season a better team than it started, the Cougar season mirrored the instability of its lineup. With 12 different players drawing starting assignments over the course of the season, the Cougars were never able to establish an identity of consistency and cohesiveness.
"We expect to win on a consistent basis," Lamb said. "Obviously there were extenuating circumstances this past season. I'm not making any excuses, though, this season was tough. But it was not indicative of what BYU volleyball is about. We are going to win and carry on the tradition of BYU volleyball."
The 2002 season for BYU was a combination of an unrelenting schedule combined with an inexperienced lineup. Heading into 2002, the Cougars had recorded 28 consecutive 20-win seasons and had never experienced a losing year. Many factors combined to send the Cougars to their first non-winning season (sub .500 record) in school history (14-19). Nineteen losses represent the most of any season in school history, but BYU also endured the most injuries it has ever had in a single season.
Entering the season BYU had 16 players on its roster. Nine of those players were affected in someway that prevented them from playing or hindered their ability. Preseason All-America candidate Sunny Mahe was a medical redshirt, and 2002 U.S. National A2 Team member Lauren Richards and 2002 Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year Lindsy Lewis also sat out the season as redshirts.
Starting freshman middle blocker Lexi Brown tore her ACL in the eighth match and was lost for the season, while the Cougars' other starting middle Carrie Bowers struggled as the season wore on with stress fractures in each foot. In addition, Lindsey Metcalf, Becky Warnick, Laura Nielsen and April Varner were all bitten by the injury bug with ailments ranging from severely sprained ankles to a broken foot.
Compounding matters, BYU returned only two starters in juniors Karina Puikkonen and Uila Crabbe. In the end they would be the only Cougars to play in all 124 games.
With a lineup that seemingly changed on a weekly basis, setter Karina Puikkonen shouldered a more offensive role. She stepped up in big matches and recorded her first two career triple-doubles against Texas A&M and Colorado State. Puikkonen tied for the team lead in posting eight double-doubles and also recorded 1,311 assists (10.57 apg) to give her 4,034 assists for her career, good for fifth all-time at BYU. She also led the team with a .330 attack percentage and 25 aces, and was second with 127 blocks and fourth with 204 digs.
Uila Crabbe led the team with 376 digs (3.03 dpg), the fourth highest single-season total in BYU history.
The Cougars lost the middle-blocking tandem of All-American Nina Puikkonen and All-MWC Jackie Bundy to graduation, and entered the season with three middle blockers on its roster (Bowers, Brown and Nielsen). Each one was fraught with injury over the course of the season. Mid-season with Brown already lost for the season, the Cougars saw Neilsen bow out of the lineup with a broken foot, forcing BYU to slide outside hitter Lindsey Metcalf into the middle. Metcalf subsequently went down two weeks later with a severely sprained ankle, forcing the Cougars to move outside hitter Erin Webb into the middle.
In a transition year, the Cougars schedule was characteristically tough. Of BYU's 23 opponents, as defined by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, 12 were regionally ranked and eight were nationally ranked. BYU played three of the eventual Final Four teams (Florida, Hawai'i and USC). The Cougars also played five teams that ended the season ranked in the top 10 of the final USA Today/AVCA Coaches Top 25 Poll (USC, Hawai'i, Florida, Arizona and Washington State).
A fact of small consolation to the team during the season, a young and inexperienced lineup became a seasoned group, almost all of whom had the experience of starting a match.
The emergence of true freshman outside hitter Kimberly Wilson was instrumental to a team that needed a steady offensive force. Wilson, a hometown product hailing from Provo High School, slowly worked her way into the lineup as the season progressed, and by the end of it she was BYU's most looked to offensive force. Starting the season as a reserve didn't have the opportunity to register her first double-digit kill effort until midway through the season, but she caught fire down the stretch in recording 14 double-digit kill efforts in BYU's final 19 matches, proving she was one of the Mountain West Conference's top first-year players.
Sophomore Metcalf enjoyed a breakthrough year as well in displaying an all-around game. She set a MWC single-match record and posted the fourth-best mark in BYU history with 17 blocks against UNLV, Sept. 28. Metcalf also set career highs during the season with 17 kills, 15 assists and 20 digs.
One by one everybody on BYU's active roster started seeing playing time. Laura Nielsen wouldn't see court action until the Cougars' sixth match, after everyone else had seen some action. It was in the next match, however, that her impact began to be felt. The transfer from Ricks College (Idaho) replaced Brown, who tore her ACL against Weber State, and made an immediate contribution putting down seven kills with only one hitting error. Over the next five matches Nielsen would maintain her consistency with 2.63 kpg and 1.00 bpg, until she suffered a setback of her own -- a broken foot against Illinois that would sideline her for six additional matches. After her return, Nielsen recorded six double-digit kill matches and had two double-digit block matches in BYU's final 14 contests. She would continue her efficient attack in conference play with a .353 hitting percentage, ranking second in the MWC, and leading to a place on the All-MWC team.
After ranking in the national top 10 in blocking for the first month of the season, a hobbled Bowers became increasingly limited in her lateral movements as the season wore on because of stress fractures to her feet. A tough competitor, she continued to play through the pain and ended the season with 1.38 bpg, ranking No. 28 nationally.
Despite a lineup that was besieged by injury, the Cougars never gave up and broke through in pressure situations time and time again. Although BYU endured two four-match losing streaks in the first half of the season, each time the team would avoid the dubious distinction of being the first squad in BYU history of losing five in a row by narrowly escaping with five-game wins over Wake Forest and UNLV.
At 7-12 the Cougars headed on the annual Front Range road trip on Oct. 18 with the prospects of becoming the only Cougar team to ever drop to as many as seven matches below .500. Indicative of its season and with its backs against the wall, BYU came through with five-game wins over MWC-leader CSU and a Wyoming team that was in the midst of a 20-win campaign. In the MWC Tournament, the Cougars would not disappoint as they earned a pair of five-game wins over UNLV and CSU before falling to Utah in the final.
A team of resiliency, BYU was a team that grew stronger as a match wore on. The Cougars ended the season an impressive 7-2 in five-game matches, including a perfect 6-0 mark over MWC opponents.
BYU bid adieu to senior co-captains Allison Larson and Michelle Mahaffey. Both saw significant court action as each played in 123 of 124 games. Larson flourished after moving from the outside to the rightside at the start of the season. She led the Cougars in kills a team-high 13 times while leading them in total attempts just once. She led the team with 337 kills (2.74 kpg) and was third with a .212 attack percentage.
Mahaffey, as a libero/defensive specialist was fifth on the team with 200 digs (1.63 dpg). She had her most dominating stretch at the BYU Mizuno Classic as she put up a career-high 15 digs in back-to-back nights against Wake Forest and Florida.
Despite a seemingly ever-changing lineup, BYU continued its tradition of being one of the nation's premier blocking teams. BYU finished 13th with 3.10 blocks per game. The Cougars were led by Carrie Bowers who had 161 total blocks (1.38 bpg), Karina Puikkonen with 127 blocks (1.02 bpg) and Allison Larson with 102 blocks (0.83 bpg).
Allison Larson and Laura Nielsen were named to the 2003 All-MWC Team for their performance over the season, and Larson and Karina Puikkonen were named to the MWC All-Tournament Team for their efforts in leading the Cougars to the championship match.
"No one could have done a better job of coaching this team this past year than Karen and her staff," Michaelis said. "What this team had to endure over the season and how it handled the adversity was unbelievable."
The season, and Lamb's career as the Cougars' head coach started as tradition would dictate, with a win over Gonzaga at the season opening Les Schwab Cougar Classic held at Washington State. After going 1-2 in Pullman, the Cougars returned to host the BYU Mizuno Classic. BYU struggled against top competition and sat at 2-5 after its first two weekends. Of the Cougars' five losses three came to eventual NCAA Champion USC, No. 3 Florida and No. 10 WSU. The Cougars' two other losses were at the hands of regionally ranked Nevada and Oral Roberts.
A reeling Cougar club next hosted Weber State on Sept. 10, a team BYU had never lost to with a 51-0 head-to-head record heading into the match. More important than the match perhaps, BYU's injury embraced its first member, as starting middle blocker Lexi Brown was lost for the season with a torn ACL. The Cougars earned their first sweep of the season in downing the Wildcats and headed to Texas to take part in the McDonald's Texas A&M Invitational.
Arriving in College Station, Texas, the Cougars proceeded to sweep their first two opponents, Louisiana-Lafayette and Sam Houston State. With the wins BYU evened its record at 5-5 and a season-high three-match win streak heading into the tournament finale against host, the then No.16 Aggies. Behind the first career triple-double of Karina Puikkonen's career, the Cougars had their moments to seize the momentum and the match, but fell in four close games.
Continuing its rigorous non-conference schedule, the Cougars were swept on back-to-back nights in hosting regionally ranked Arkansas and Illinois, before the start of MWC play.
BYU hit the road to face San Diego State and UNLV, but were without the services of newly called upon starting middle blocker Laura Nielsen who broke her foot against Illinois. With Carrie Bowers the only healthy middle blocker on the roster, the Cougars called upon Lindsey Metcalf to fill the void in the middle. Metcalf, who had never before played as a middle blocker, started the season as the team's starting rightside hitter and was moved to the leftside on the team's trip to Texas.
The Cougars were downed by the Aztecs to extend their losing streak to four matches, the second such streak on the season. The next night against the Rebels, numerous records were set as the Cougars snapped their winless streak with a close five-game win over UNLV. BYU had 24 team blocks, the fourth highest mark in team history and Metcalf, in her second match as a middle blocker, set a MWC record and fourth-best mark in BYU history with 17 blocks. Allison Larson registered her lone career double-double with 18 kills and career-high 10 blocks. During a season, BYU has never lost five matches in a row, and it had only lost four matches in a row once, in 1980.
BYU had a chance to extend its perfect record over Air Force, but the host Cougars were defeated by an upstart Falcons squad. The Cougars bounced back the next night to sweep New Mexico, improving their record to 7-10.
The following week was instate rivalry week for the Cougars as they traveled to Utah State and Utah. The injury curse fell upon the BYU against USU, as converted middle blocker Metcalf was lost in the first game with a severely sprained ankle. Redshirt freshman outside hitter Erin Webb replaced Metcalf in the middle as the Cougars lost a close five-game match to the Aggies. With its depleted lineup, BYU then took on No. 19 Utah and despite a hard-fought effort, lost in three games.
At 7-12 overall and 2-3 in the MWC, and missing the injured trio of Brown, Neilsen and Metcalf, the Cougars were facing a defining moment in their season as they prepared for their annual front range road trip to play Colorado State and Wyoming.
Heading into the match with CSU, the Rams were leading the MWC at 5-0 and had four straight regular season wins over the Cougars in Moby Arena, including three straight Ram sweeps. BYU's last regular season win at CSU was a 3-1 triumph in 1995. Overall, BYU's last win over the Rams in Fort Collins was at the 2000 MWC Tournament when the Cougars upset the Rams to win the tournament title. In addition Colorado State had never lost a conference match at home under the direction of head coach Tom Hilbert. The Rams were a perfect 38-0 since Hilbert's arrival in 1997. Despite not playing its best match, the Cougars welcomed Nielsen back from injury, and she led the team to a close five-game win. In the match Nielsen had 11 kills and hit a career-high .643.
The next night BYU faced a Wyoming team that swept Utah the night before in addition to enjoying one of the best starts in school history. It was an offensive display as BYU hit .330 and Wyoming hit .342 with Puikkonen reaching career highs of 69 assists and 11 kills, while a surging April Varner collected a career-best 23 kills. Varner led five players with double-digit kills against the Cowgirls and Nielsen again played a key role with 11 kills (.444) and a team-high four blocks. For her play in leading BYU to a pair of tough conference road wins, Nielsen was named MWC Co-Player of the Week.
BYU returned home to host UNLV and SDSU, but lost its top offensive threat in Varner due to a severely sprained ankle in the week leading up to the matches. Metcalf returned but her mobility was limited and would be through the end of the season, as the Cougars fell to the Rebels and Aztecs.
The Cougars then headed to play Air Force and New Mexico, but were without the services of starting middle blocker Carrie Bowers who was left in Provo to rest her stress fractured feet. Webb drew the starting assignments in the middle for both matches and contributed 20 kills and 12 blocks as the Cougars rolled to a pair of wins.
In its only match of the following week, BYU hosted Utah in front of the largest Smith Fieldhouse crowd of the year with 2,194 fans, including the BYU football team. The Cougars would take a close game one 33-31, and would have opportunities to seize control throughout the hard-fought affair, but the Utes took the next three games to seal the match. BYU would then host Wyoming and Colorado State to conclude the regular conference season schedule. The Cougars stayed perfect on the season against the Cowgirls with another five-game match, but the Rams exacted revenge on the Cougars with a sweep sending the teams into preparations for the MWC Tournament.
An improving team as the season progressed, the Cougars staged a stirring run through the MWC Tournament in Fort Collins, Colo. BYU's only chance of qualifying for an NCAA Tournament berth would have been to win the MWC Tournament and secure the conference's automatic bid. Entering the tournament BYU was an impressive 5-2 in five-game matches on the season. The Cougars battled through a hard fought 3-2 win over UNLV in the opening round to setup a match-up with host Colorado State. After winning the first game versus the Rams, CSU proceeded to take the next two games, but BYU, behind the second career triple-double from Karina Puikkonen, fought back in dramatic fashion to knock off the top-seeded Rams, 3-2, and advance to the final against Utah. Coming off two grueling five-game matches the Cougars post-season hopes were dashed by the Utes. BYU's Puikkonen and Allison Larson were recognized with MWC All-Tournament selections.
Three days after a grueling end to the MWC Tournament, the Cougars returned home only to be swept by the then No.2 team in the nation in Hawai'i. BYU concluded its season by hosting then No. 16 Arizona. The Cougars came out swinging and took the first game 30-28, but were eventually overcome by a hot Wildcat team.