BYU built upon its 42 year volleyball tradition with another 20-win season in 2003 -- its 29th 20-win season in the last 30 years. With a 24-9 record, the Cougar women's volleyball team now has 925 wins in its storied history, which is third all time among NCAA Division I teams.
After an uncharacteristic 2002 season that brought an unprecedented number of injuries, BYU Head Coach Karen Lamb led the Cougars to their biggest single-season turnaround ever. The 10-win improvement (tied for fifth nationally) was achieved through a balanced team effort that led to things that happened for the first time in team history.
"We had some exciting highlights during the season," Lamb said. Some of the most memorable were returning to the NCAA Tournament and winning our first-round match, going 12-2 at home, the big turnaround from 2002 and fact that we didn't have as many injuries.
"It was a weird year in that respect, we were healthy pretty much the whole year."
During Lamb's two-year tenure, BYU is 11-3 in five-game matches. In that time, the Cougars have grown to be more resilient than ever in grinding out wins. Since 1980, the Cougars have come back from a 0-2 deficit 13 times -- four times in the last two years.
Last season, BYU proved to be tougher than ever with three come-from-behind wins after being down 0-2. The Cougars victimized Air Force, San Diego State and Utah State. Proving BYU's toughness in tough times, the team didn't lose more than two matches in a row all season -- and lost two consecutive matches only once.
"This team has proven its toughness, especially in the past two years," Lamb said. "We've fought through so many different things and have managed to become a better team because of the experience."
Perhaps central to the turnaround was the BYU offense. The BYU attack hit a collective .255, 68 points better than its .187 attack percentage in 2002. The Cougars were the 38th-ranked hitting team in the country in 2003. BYU also continued to be a top-blocking team, averaging 3.09 blocks per game, ranking No. 13 nationally.
The season included many more highlights for the Cougars. After an outstanding opening tournament at then-No. 3 Florida, senior rightside hitter Carrie Bowers was named Mountain West Conference Player of the Week. She hit .443 in leading BYU to a 2-1 record, and put down a career-high 22 kills in the team's season opener against American, Aug. 29.
Sophomore outside hitter Kim Wilson put down a career-high 29 kills against Saint Louis, Sept. 6. The Cougars won the BYU Mizuno Classic for the third time in four years, with wins over preseason top-25 Ohio State, Rice and then-No. 8 Penn State. The win over the Nittany Lions represented Lamb's first career win over a top-10 team. Continuing her strong early season play, Wilson was named Most Valuable Player of the Mizuno Classic with three consecutive double-doubles. Sophomore setter Lauren Richards became the second Cougar to earn MWC Player of the Week honors, after leading BYU to the Mizuno Classic title.
"Winning the Mizuno Classic and beating No. 8 Penn State was a huge win for us," Lamb said. "It's easy with rally scoring to have a bad loss. As I look at our losses we didn't have a bad loss. All of our losses were to NCAA Tournament teams."
BYU went 7-2 in October, which included two of its five-game comeback wins, against the Falcons and Aztecs. On Oct. 18, the Cougars hit a season-best .439 against UNLV, only committing seven attack errors as a team. One week later on Oct. 24, against Wyoming, the Cougars put up their biggest blocking total of the season with 21.
November was a critical month for BYU's NCAA Tournament hopes. The Cougars went 6-2 and won their first-round match with Air Force in the MWC Tournament. Against the Falcons, Richards set a career-high with eight service aces -- the most aces of any Cougar since Stephanie Trane put down nine in 1989 against Wyoming. BYU ended its season with a pair of Thanksgiving home matches against Utah State and Eastern Michigan. The Cougars and Aggies staged an epic battle, in which BYU pulled out a win after being down 0-2 on the strength of its defense. BYU put up a season-high 99 digs, led by Bowers' career-high 22 digs. For her play in leading the team to the pair of wins, which included her first career double-double, sophomore middle blocker Lexi Brown was named the final MWC Player of the Week for the season.
On Nov. 30, the Cougars received their 21st NCAA Tournament invite in 23 years.
BYU traveled to Hawai`i, where its first-round opponent was New Mexico State, which was riding a 24-match winning streak entering the tournament. After the Cougars dispatched the Aggies in straight sets on the strength of a season-best 14 aces, they met No. 2 Hawai`i. The Rainbow Wahine proved to be too strong in ending the Cougars' season.
Senior libero Uila Crabbe had a record-setting season and left her imprint in the MWC and Cougar history books. On Nov. 7 against Utah, she became the sixth Cougar to amass 1,000 career digs. She passed Caroline Bower to move into fifth place all time at BYU in digs on Nov. 20 against Air Force. On 'Senior Night' against Eastern Michigan on Nov. 28, she passed Cherie Sam Fong to set the BYU single-season digs record.
In a storybook ending, Crabbe was set to finish her BYU career without the opportunity to play in front of her family and friends in Hawai`i. In 2001, at the beginning of Crabbe's sophomore year, the Cougars were scheduled to play a tournament in Hawai`i, Sept. 13-15. BYU was scheduled to leave on Sept. 11, until the occurrence of the 9/11 tragedies. With BYU drawing to play in the NCAA sub-regional at Hawai`i, however, Crabbe got her opportunity. In the second round against the hometown Rainbow Wahine and playing against three of her former high school teammates, Crabbe ended her career by setting a new MWC single-season digs record.
"For Uila to have the opportunity to go back home after having our previous trip canceled and play in front of her home crowd was a special moment," Lamb said. "It couldn't have happened to a better person."
"Then she broke the conference digs record, and it was a wonderful end to a good season. It was an awesome, awesome thing."
Three Cougars were honored with All-MWC selections, including Bowers, Crabbe and Lauren Richards. Redshirt freshman Lindsy Hartsock had a breakout campaign, as she was name MWC Freshman of the Year and All-West Region Honorable Mention. In addition, four Cougars were ranked in the MWC top 10 in hitting percentage: No. 2 Lexi Brown (.376), No. 4 Hartsock (.350), No. 6 Laura Nielsen (.321) and No. 10 Carrie Bowers (.300). BYU proved to have the most balance of any MWC team, as eight players recorded more than 100 kills.
There were a number of players who emerged as cornerstones for the future of BYU volleyball. Hartsock, in addition to being named All-West Region Honorable Mention, was second on the team in hitting percentage (.350), blocking (111) and service aces (34). At 6-foot-4, she provided an intimidating defensive presence and offensive efficiency.
Brown rebounded from a torn ACL in 2002 and proved to be a force on both sides of the ball. She hit a team-best .376, which would have ranked among the top-25 players nationally with a handful of additional attempts. She also led the team in blocks per game with 1.25. Brown led the team in kills five times, during which the Cougars were 5-0. Hartsock and Brown have the potential to be the most dominating middle blocking combination in the country.
Setting the table for the team was first-year setter and sophomore Richards. After spending her true freshman season as an outside hitter, Richards displayed her all-around talents as a setter. She led the team with 12 double-doubles, led the team in aces (50), was third in digs (241) and fourth in blocks (99). Richards also led the team to a .255 hitting percentage, BYU's best offensive output in three years.
Filling the role of a serving/defensive specialist behind Crabbe, sophomore Melanie Togo proved to be adept at covering the floor with numerous outstanding digs throughout the season. With Crabbe's graduation, Togo should play a critical role in the future.
Wilson proved to be a go-to player in 2003, leading the team in kills and attempts. Her 29 kills against Saint Louis were the most by any Cougar since Nina Puikkonen had 32 in 2001. Her effectiveness was curtailed during the season with an inflamed shoulder, but she ended the campaign on a strong note with a team-leading 12 kills against No. 2 Hawai`i in the NCAA Tournament.
With the experience gained by BYU's returnees combined with a top recruiting class, the Cougars' future is bright.
In all, BYU dominated at home with a 12-2 record, including a 7-0 record against non-conference foes. In their 14 home matches, the Cougars drew an average of 1,279 fans, which ranked them 27th in the country.
"Our attendance went up and I appreciate our fan support," Lamb said. "We had great work from our parents and 12th team members. There was great support for the team, everybody, including the players, worked hard in marketing to boost attendance."
"It was the first year of the BYU Women's Volleyball Team Fan Club and we had over 200 members sign up. We have a goal of making it one of the most successful fan clubs of its kind in the country."
BYU started its season with a trip to Florida to participate in the Campus USA Credit Union Invitational. The Cougars opened their season with consecutive wins over American and Rutgers. Senior rightside hitter Carrie Bowers started the season on fire as she recorded a career-high 22 kills against the Eagles and posted a career-high .583 hitting percentage in a win over the Scarlet Knights. BYU finished the tournament with a loss to then-No. 3 Florida. For her efforts, Bowers was named Mountain West Conference Player of the Week, after averaging 5.0 kills, 1.7 digs and 0.7 digs per game while hitting .443.
The Cougars continued their road tournament play the following week in Springfield, Mo., where they participated in the Dr. Mary Jo Wynn SMS Invitational. In its first match of the tournament, BYU lost a closely contested five-game clash to Arkansas. The loss marked the only time BYU has lost consecutive matches this season. BYU then won a pair of four-game matches against North Texas and Saint Louis. In the match against the Billikens, sophomore outside hitter Kim Wilson put down a career-high 29 kills. In the tournament concluding match, the Cougars were downed by host Southwest Missouri State.
Finally home and ready to play their first home matches of the season, the Cougars were set for the BYU Mizuno Classic. On the first night of the tournament (Sept. 12), BYU played preseason top-25 Ohio State and won in four games. The next afternoon, the Cougars downed Rice before a showdown with then-No. 8 Penn State that night. Against the Nittany Lions, BYU dropped the first game before fighting through for a close five-game win. Wilson led the Coguars with 22 kills, 11 digs and six blocks in the win. She was also named tournament MVP for her play throughout. For leading the team offensively, sophomore setter Lauren Richards received MWC Player of the Week honors.
With the continuation of its home schedule, the Cougars welcomed Utah Valley State and Nevada. BYU swept both teams to mark the first time it had swept teams in consecutive matches. In its wins over the Wolverines and Wolfpack, BYU hit .422 and .333, respectively. The wins put the Cougars on a five-match win streak, their longest in two years.
Sept. 26 marked BYU's entrance into Mountain West Conference play. The Cougars hosted Colorado State and Wyoming. BYU earned a split of the two matches with a loss to the Rams and sweep over the Cowgirls.
It was then time to hit the road for BYU as it traveled to play New Mexico and Air Force. The Cougars won in a tidy sweep over the Lobos the first night, but met resistence the next night at Air Force. The Falcons were unstoppable at the beginning, putting BYU into a quick 0-2 hole. The Cougars would storm back, however, and take the next three to win thier first match of the year after being down 0-2. Four Cougars hit double-digit kills, led by Wilson and junior outside hitter April Varner with 18 each.
The next week was rivalry week for BYU as it played at Weber State in a mid-week match and hosted Utah later in the week. The Cougars rolled over the Wildcats in four games. After dropping the first two games to the Utes, the Cougars dominated the third, but ultimately fell in four. In the match sophomore middle blocker Lexi Brown set a career-high 16 kills.
Things didn't get easier for the Cougars as they hosted San Diego State in their next match. The Aztecs got up 2-0, forcing BYU into a corner. The Cougars pulled off their second win of the year when down 0-2 with a dramatic win over SDSU. The next night, BYU swept UNLV with its most offensive effort of the season with a .439 attack percentage.
The Cougars then left for their annual Front Range trip and defeated an inspired Wyoming team that fell in four games, before losing to Colorado State the following night.
BYU swept both of its matches against New Mexico and Air Force and was the only team in the MWC to hit over .300 in all of its games and in each match.
In its lone week 11 match, the Cougars played instate rival Utah. It was a hard fought match on both sides, and BYU, down 2-1, was up 27-21 in the fourth game, but was unable to hold on and eventually fell for the seventh consecutive time to the Utes.
The MWC regular season finished in style for BYU, as it played some of its best all-around volleyball with the conference tournament looming. The Cougars swept through the Rebels at UNLV before dominating San Diego State. BYU, the No.11 blocking team in the nation entering the week, posted double-digit blocks against the Rebels (11) and Aztecs (14). Sophomore setter Lauren Richards quarterbacked the attack to a .292 hitting percentage.
BYU came out as two distinctly different teams in the Mountain West Conference Championship. The Cougars started strong with a convincing sweep of Air Force on Thursday as the team hit a collective .366. The next day in its semifinal match-up against Utah, BYU struggled out of the gate in dropping a three-game decision to the Utes.
In the final week of their regular season, the Cougars kicked off the week's play with their third come-from-behind win of the season, after being down 0-2. In a Tuesday match-up, BYU victimized Utah State for its 22nd win of the season. There were many team and individual highlights, but Lexi Brown stood out, recording her first career double-double with 18 kills and 10 blocks. The Cougars ended their season on "Senior Night" with a sweep of Eastern Michigan. Crabbe broke the single-season digs record at BYU finishing the match with 409.
The season ended with the Cougars making the NCAA Tournament for the 21st time in 23 years. BYU traveled to Hawai`i for its first and second round match-ups. The Cougars took on New Mexico State, which was riding a 24-match win streak in the first match and put away a season-high tying 14 aces in an easy sweep. BYU next took on then-No. 2 Hawai`i in its second-round match. Uila Crabbe set a new BYU and MWC single-season record in digs with 435 in playing her hometown team. BYU lost to the Rainbow Wahine in three games, but the 10-win differential between the 2002 and 2003 seasons proved to be the best single-season turnaround in school history.
2003 Season Highlights
* Qualified for its 21st NCAA Tournament in 23 years
* Won 27th NCAA Tournament match against New Mexico State -- the ninth most win
in tournament history
* Recorded 29th 20-win season in the past 30 years
* All-MWC Team selections: Carrie Bowers, Lauren Richards and Uila Crabbe
* MWC Freshman of the Year and All-West Region Honorable Mention Lindsy
* Won BYU Mizuno Classic with wins over Rice, Ohio State and then-No. 8 Penn
* Kim Wilson named BYU Mizuno Classic MVP
* Carrie Bowers, Lauren Richards and Lexi Brown named MWC Players of the Week
* Uila Crabbe set BYU and MWC single-season records with 435 digs
* Uila Crabbe became the sixth player to record 1,000 career digs and finshed
fifth (1,119) in digs at BYU all time
* Recorded 10 more wins than in 2002 -- the best single-season win differential
in school history, and tied for fifth in the nation