BYU opens the 2000 women's volleyball season on the road Friday and Saturday at the Shamrock Invitational in South Bend, Ind. The Cougars will face Clemson, ranked 22nd in last year's final poll and 27th in this year's preseason coaches poll, Friday before playing tournament host Notre Dame Saturday. The Irish are rated one spot behind Clemson at No. 28 in the nation in the AVCA/USA Today preseason coaches poll. BYU enters the event with a No. 15 national ranking.
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.
"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," Michaelis said. "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."
Redshirt freshman Karina Puikkonen, the 6-foot younger sister of All-American middle blocker Nina Puikkonen, is slated to start at setter. In addition to the Puikkonens, other projected starters include another pair of sisters, Kalani (junior outside hitter) and Sunny (sophomore rightside hitter) Tonga as well as senior outside hitter Melissa Layton and junior middle blocker Jackie Bundy.
Headlining the Cougar roster in 2000 is two-time All-American 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.
BYU will be facing Clemson for the first time Friday. The Cougars are 8-1 overall against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents (4-1 vs. Florida State, 1-0 vs. Duke, 1-0 vs. Maryland, and 2-0 vs. North Carolina). BYU's last match against an ACC team was Sept. 29, 1990 in a 3-0 BYU win over North Carolina at the Nebraska Invitational in Lincoln, Neb. BYU's loss to Florida State was a five-game battle at the Kentucky Invitational in 1989.
The Cougars are 2-0 against Notre Dame, including last year's 15-12, 15-7, 15-7 win in Provo on Oct. 19. BYU also defeated the Irish 3-0 in the 1993 NCAA Tournament, the year BYU advanced to the NCAA Final Four. This will be the first meeting between the two schools on Notre Dame's home court. The Cougars are 7-0 against the Big East Conference (2-0 vs. Notre Dame and Providence and 1-0 vs. Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse). BYU will play the Big East's Temple later this season.
The Tigers return eight letterwinners and two starters from last year's 31-3 team that finished first in the ACC with a 15-1 mark. Coached by Jolene Jordan Hoover (264-94 overall in 10 years and 174-63 in seven years at Clemson), Clemson earned a top-25 ranking last year and is rated No. 27 in this year's preseason poll. Top returners include setter Jessi Belcher (5-foot-6 sophomore) and rightside hitter Jodi Steffers (6-foot-1 junior). Seven freshman join the Tigers this season, including top newcomers Ryane Beasley (6-foot-1 middle blocker) and Christine Dallao (6-foot outside hitter). The Tigers are coming off two losses to end last season, losing 3-1 to nationally ranked North Carolina in the ACC Tournament Championship match and dropping a 3-1 match to Indiana in the NCAA tournament.
Scouting Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish return nine letterwinners and five of six starters from last year's 20-9 team that finished first in the Big East Conference with a perfect 11-0 record. Coached by Debbie Brown (345-163 overall in 15 years and 228-80 in her nine years at Notre Dame), Notre Dame was ranked in the top -25 during last season and qualified for the NCAA tournament before losing to Ohio State 3-1 in the first round. The Irish, who were 10-2 in the friendly confines of the Joyce Center (11,418) last year, are expected to be an even better team in 2000. The Irish boast a tall lineup, including senior setter Denise Boylan (6-foot-1, 11.92 assists per game) and senior outside hitter Christi Girton (6-foot-3, 3.83 kills per game). Notre Dame's top newcomers are freshman middles Katherine Neff (6-foot-4) and Kim Fletcher (6-foot).
Coach Michaelis Notables
Now in her 39th year at the helm of the BYU program, Elaine Michaelis also enters her sixth year as Director of Women's Athletics. A proven winner, Michaelis is second all-time in Division I victories with an 841-209-5 record (since records were kept in 1969) and has the most wins ever by a female coach. With last year's Mountain West Conference regular season title, she has the distinction of winning the inaugural championship in each of the five leagues in which BYU has been a volleyball member. Michaelis concluded her first season in the new Mountain West Conference with a 13-1 record to improve her overall conference ledger to an incredible 334-31 -- a .915 winning percentage. With a 28-5 overall record in 1999, Michaelis posted her 26th consecutive 20-win season and her 28th in 31 years. She has never had a losing season. In 1999, her Cougar squad advanced to the NCAA East Regional Semifinals -- the fourth straight year she has guided BYU to the round of 16. She coached BYU to wins over No. 10 Pepperdine, No. 12 Colorado State, No. 14 Arizona, No. 23 Wisconsin and No. 29 Utah (twice) last year will suffering losses to No. 2 Stanford, No. 5 Florida, No. 12 Colorado State (twice) and NCAA tournament-qualifying Michigan. The Cougars' foray into the NCAA tournament was their 18th in the 19-year history of NCAA control of the sport. It also marked the 28th time BYU has participated in a national tournament. BYU's run to the NCAA regional semifinals improved Michaelis' national tournament record to 71-42 (.628).