Head coach Karen Lamb looks to lead a healthy and talented Cougar team to a successful 2003 season. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
PROVO -- With the start of summer practice today, the BYU women's volleyball team has started its countdown towards the start of its 48th season.
Coming off the most injury-plagued season in team history, the Cougars are poised to become the nation's most improved team in 2003. A healthy squad combined with a talent-laden lineup should return the Cougars to the top echelon of teams in the country.
After seeing its lineup decimated by injuries - a total of 12 Cougars drew starting assignments in 2002 - BYU returns nine letterwinners and eight players with significant starting experience.?
The positive side of BYU's injury struggles last year is manifested in its suddenly experienced lineup. Despite the Cougars' 14-19 record in 2002, they were an impressive 7-2 in five-game matches with a perfect 6-0 record versus Mountain West Conference opponents. BYU's improvement as the season wore on was manifested in its run to the MWC Tournament finals.
"Last year will never happen again," BYU head coach Karen Lamb said. "Only one of the injuries happened in practice and the rest were freak injuries. Last season made us really tough, though. The result is we have a lot of tough individuals on our team. We need to be in that mindset to compete at the highest levels."
Lauren Richards, Carrie Bowers, Laura Nielsen, Uila Crabbe, April Varner, Lindsey Metcalf, Lexi Brown and Kimberly Wilson are the eight Cougars that return with starting experience.
BYU lost three players from its 2002 roster. All-MWC rightside hitter Allison Larson and defensive specialist Michelle Mahaffey were the two departing seniors while two-time All-MWC setter Karina Puikkonen graduated with a degree in Zoology and will not return for her final year of eligibility. As well, All-America candidate Sunny Mahe, who redshirted last year, will not return to the team.
The young and well-balanced 2003 BYU roster features four seniors, four juniors, four sophomores and nine freshmen. In all, the Cougar roster is comprised of nine returning letterwinners, two junior college transfers, one redshirt freshman and nine incoming high school recruits.
"This will be an exciting season for us," Lamb said. "We have a lot of talent coming back and with three key redshirts returning. We expect to be a top-20 team throughout the season."
BYU will open its 2003 schedule Aug. 29-30 at the University of Florida Tournament, where they will face Florida, American and Rutgers.
The BYU Mizuno Classic presented by Courtyard Marriott will be held Sept. 12-13, where the Cougars will make their season debut at home. They will play host to Penn State, Ohio State and Rice.
The following position-by-position look at the Cougars gives further insight into what might transpire on the court for BYU in 2003.
The outside hitting position has possibly five players vying for playing time at three positions.
Senior Carrie Bowers leads the parade of outside hitters, as she shifts from the middle to the rightside. Bowers, one of the top blockers in the nation last season, before injuries slowed her, has worked hard to train in the off-season. As a result of rigorous weight training, she is stronger and is expected to once again be among the best blockers in the country. She is an intelligent player and has the savvy to be a strong offensive contributor.
BYU's leftside hitting triumvirate of Kimberly Wilson, April Varner and Lindsey Metcalf each saw extensive playing time last season, with Wilson establishing herself as a premier attacker as the season progressed.
Wilson, one of the Cougars' most gifted leapers, improved with each successive match in 2002, and she is expected to be a focal point of the BYU attack this season. She posted 14 double-digit kill efforts in BYU's last 19 matches.
Metcalf is perhaps the Cougars' most complete player and best overall athlete. In 2002 she posted career highs of 17 kills, 20 digs, 17 blocks and 15 assists. Her 17-block effort at UNLV on Sept. 28 established a new MWC record and is fourth all-time at BYU. She is also an All-American high jumper on the BYU women's track and field team.
A highly regarded transfer from Long Beach State before the 2002 season, Varner started the season as BYU's main offensive threat. She improved over the course of the season, which peaked with a career-high 23 kills at Wyoming on Oct. 19. The following week during a practice, April severely sprained an ankle, which virtually kept her out of the lineup for the rest of the season. She should again be a key member of the Cougar attack in 2003.
Sahara Castillo is one of four seniors on this year's squad. In 2002, she was BYU's top server, with a lethal jump serve. She is a hardworking competitor and might also see time as a defensive specialist.
The Cougars have two incoming freshman at the outside hitting position in Erica Lott and Kimberly Dabo. Lott is a 'Fab 50' recruit and is also listed as a middle blocker. She has the opportunity to play and make an offensive impact this season.
The position most affected by injury in 2002, BYU has a talented core of middle blockers this season that should continue to provide BYU with the foundation of a great offense and defense.
Laura Nielsen is the lone returning All-MWC player on the Cougars. After starting last year as a reserve, Nielsen gained playing time as a result of an injury to Lexi Brown. She took advantage of her opportunity and was second on the team with a .298 attack percentage. Besides being the Cougars' most efficient attacking player, Nielsen also set career highs with 11 blocks and eight digs. She will be looked on to provide leadership while playing an all-around game.
Lindsy Lewis-Hartsock will be looked on to provide an immediate impact as a redshirt freshman. A former Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year, Lewis-Hartsock participated with the U.S. National Women's A2 Team this past summer and has vastly improved in her year as a redshirt. At 6-foot-4, she has the ability to dominate on both sides of the ball and is a freshman All-America candidate.
Sophomore Lexi Brown made a splash in her collegiate debut last season against Gonzaga with 14 kills, eight blocks, two service aces and a .619 hitting percentage. In the season's eighth game against Weber State, however, she tore her ACL shelving her for the remainder of the season. At the time of her injury she was the Cougars' second leading blocker. A starter last season, Brown will be looked upon to compete for playing time this season.
Mandi Kiholm, a transfer from Utah Valley State College, is a quick and intelligent player. At UVSC she was second in the Scenic West Athletic Conference with a .388 attack percentage and third in blocks per game (1.40). She is a competitive player that will push for playing time.
Incoming freshman Erica Lott, also listed as an outside hitter, might see time in the middle as well. Other incoming freshmen middle blockers include Catherine Parker and Amy Hulse.
Lauren Richards, one of the most athletic setters in the country, quarterbacks the attack. After coming out of redshirt in 2001 as an outside hitter, she will make her collegiate debut as a setter this season. A sophomore, Richards has participated with the U.S. National Women's A2 Team for two consecutive summers. One of the most athletic setters in BYU history, Richards will be expected to lead BYU's offense back to one of the nation's best.
Jenna Judkins led Skyline High School in Salt Lake City to the 2002 Utah State 5A Championship. She will serve as a back up to Richards this season.
Despite only one returning player, this is perhaps BYU's deepest position.
Senior Uila Crabbe returns and is expected to be the main libero for the Cougars. Last season she led the team with 376 digs, the fourth-highest season total in team history. Crabbe also set a career high with 25 digs against UNLV in the MWC Tournament. She will not only be looked upon to provide solid defense, but to be a leader as well.
Lindsey Kearl comes to the Cougars from Utah Valley State College, where she was the team's starting defensive specialist for two years. She brings a competitive drive to the court with athleticism and intelligence. She fared well in spring play and should see court action this season.
Melanie Togo joins BYU as a sophomore and she was impressive in spring play. Togo displayed a great degree of athleticism and court sense. With her knack for getting to the ball, Togo will be in the mix as a defensive dynamo.
Lindsey Evans, Annie Kemp and Stacie Powell are incoming freshmen defensive specialist/liberos.
BYU looks to continue its winning tradition in 2003 against a strong schedule featuring 15 teams that had 20-win seasons last year.
The Cougars boast 10 matches against opponents who qualified for the 2002 NCAA Tournament, including No. 4 Florida, No. 13 Ohio State and No. 16 Penn State. BYU's non-conference opponents posted a .693 winning percentage in 2002. Overall, BYU's opponents won at a .641 clip, as 17 of 22 had winning records.
Four of the Cougars' opponents won conference titles last year and four others finished as league runners-up. In all 14 opponents achieved top-four finishes in their conferences last season.?
As the Cougars match up with their 2003 opponents, BYU has a winning record with all of them but three: Arkansas (0-1), Florida (3-4) and Penn State (3-4). BYU's all-time record versus this season's opponents is a dominating 371-75-1 (.830).