With such rich family tradition, Lauren Richards credits her parents for her interest in volleyball. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
To say that Lauren Richards is surrounded by volleyball would be somewhat of an understatement.
From the warm environment of her family home to the broad streets of her Orem neighborhood to the wooden floorboards of the Smith Fieldhouse, Richards and volleyball are inseparable, as made for each other as milk and cookies.
"I have such a passion for volleyball," said the 6-0 junior setter. "There's nothing I would rather be doing. I love competing and working hard. It's just ingrained in me and has been for as long as I can remember."
In the Richards household, volleyball is a family affair. Richards's mom Lori and dad David both starred for the BYU volleyball programs during their college days, David from 1976-1981 and Lori from 1977-78. The volleyball gene has now been passed to the younger generation of Richards.
In addition to Lauren's position with the Cougars, her sister Kristen was named the 2002 Girls Volleyball Gatorade National Player of the Year and now starts at outside hitter for Stanford University.
With such rich family tradition, Lauren credits her parents for her interest in volleyball.
"They're very supportive," Richards said. "They've never forced it upon my sister or me. I think that was one of the biggest things. They let us choose what we wanted to do. Of course, we were always around it; we were always at the gym with my mom and dad, we were always in the backyard playing but they never told us this is what we had to do. The freedom to choose made me love it even more."
Not only did David and Lori have influence within the confines of the Richards home, but on the court as well as they both coached their daughters on club teams. While knowing mom and dad as "Coach" wasn't always easy, Lauren quickly came to appreciate and respect her parents' knowledge of the game they all loved.
"There were a lot of times that we disagreed because they're both very different in the way they coach, very different coaching styles," she said. "They're both very good coaches but sometimes I would tend to agree with my mom rather than my dad or vice versa. There was never tension in the home, but it was frustrating at times. They were always harder on us than anyone else."
"But I'm grateful for that because I learned a lot from them that you can't really learn any other way. We talk about volleyball all the time. It's fun -- I love it."
And learn she did, receiving award after award for her volleyball prowess. A four-year starter and and three-year team captain at Timpanogos High School in Orem, Richards earned state MVP and Gatorade Utah Player of the Year honors as both a junior and senior and was a three-time first-team all-state selection. She also earned Volleyball Magazine Paul Mitchell High School All-America First-Team honors in her junior and senior years. Before being tabbed the No. 12 high school prospect in the nation, she competed with the U.S. Junior National Team and was a 2002 U.S. National A2 Team member.
As time passed and volleyball's importance grew, Lauren found others with whom she could share her passion for the game. Little did she know that one such friend would be at her side for the next seven years.
When middle blocker Lexi Brown, a Sandy native, joined the Players Volleyball Club, coached by Lori and David, Lauren immediately felt a connection. As they played side-by-side for four years with the Club, the two grew to be close friends, a friendship that has continued to this day. Lauren and Lexi still play side-by-side, but now it's for the team they both grew up dreaming of playing for, the BYU Cougars.
"I think we have a special relationship," Richards said. "My freshman year we were joined at the hip. Then we moved into different apartment complexes, but I think we're still extremely close. I love her. We're very close to each other's families and we've gone through a lot together. It's so much fun that we've been able to stick together throughout the years and work towards our goals together."
As her senior year of high school began in 2000, Lauren found that she had attracted more than a little attention with her bold play and leadership on the court. With the likes of 2000 National Champion Nebraska and perennial Top-20 programs UCLA, Long Beach State, Stanford, Colorado State and Utah attempting to woo the powerhouse setter, Richards found that she had a decision to make. But in her mind, it was really no contest.
"It's BYU! I've always dreamed of playing here," she said. "I love it! I absolutely love it and I wouldn't trade it for the world. It's been one of the best decisions I've ever made."
Cougar fans and coaches agree wholeheartedly. Since making her BYU debut in 2001, Richards has given her all to the program and the Cougars have realized rich dividends as a result.
A redshirt at the start of the 2001 season, Lauren was content to watch her teammates shine and continue refining her own game. But life has a tendency to throw curveballs and Lauren caught one 10 matches into the season when she was asked to come out of her redshirt season and start for the Cougars as an outside hitter. Richards quickly stepped into her new role, putting up a career-high 20 kills against No. 1 Long Beach State and ending the season with three consecutive double-digit kills matches.
But Lauren's heart has always been in setting and she elected to redshirt the next season to prepare to quarterback the attack in 2003.
"Hitting is great, especially with the crowd because that's what the crowd loves, but for me setting is more my personality," Richards said. "It's what I'm better at and it's what I love. I have such passion for setting. I love leading the team in that sense. People say that setters are like quarterbacks and I like that pressure. I like having the match on my shoulders.
"I was recruited as a setter but in 2001 the coaches decided they needed someone with a different arm swing. So I started banging balls in practice and they decided to go for it. But my heart is in setting."
In fact, what Richards describes as her favorite volleyball moment came as she was playing the position she loves. The scene was the 2002 USA Volleyball Tryouts where Richards found herself across the net from one of the nation's premier setters at the time, USC's Toni Anderson.
"I've always been on the same team with her but she's always been above me," Richards said. "That day, I decided to just play and have the time of my life. I had nothing to prove to anyone; I just wanted to play the game that I love. And it ended up being the best setting I've ever done. I turned a lot of heads and I wasn't even trying. It was so fun just because I hadn't set in so long and it felt so good to get it back."
Lauren turned even more heads in 2003 when she assumed full-time setting duties for the Cougars. As she led BYU to a 10-win improvement over the 2002 season and a .255 hitting percentage, a 68-point improvement over 2002, the accolades once again piled up.
She was twice named to all-tournament teams at the Florida Campus Credit Union Invitational and the BYU Mizuno Classic and was named Mountain West Conference Player of the Week for the week of Sept. 15 after leading BYU to a 4-0 record in the Mizuno Classic, including wins over Ohio State and then-No. 8 Penn State. Finally, Richards was named to the All-Mountain West Conference team after an outstanding season.
"I was shocked," the setter said. "We walked in late because we got lost on the way and the second I walked in they called my name. It was very cool, but I'm not very big into all the awards, I try not to let them define who I am as a player. I just want to play the game that I love; the awards aren't really something that I expect."
However, Richards had better get used to them. As the 2004 season begins, Richards will once again be leading the Cougars on the court and off of it.
"Lauren is a tremendous athlete who is key to our offensive capabilities," BYU head coach Karen Lamb. "She has gained valuable experience and will be crucial for us this year. She is definitely an All-MWC candidate."
For her part, Lauren isn't looking for the recognition. She dreams of someday being an All-American but would really rather win an MWC Championship and help her team succeed.
"We want to play as hard as we can and win as much as we can," the determined junior said. "We want to win Conference and then go as far as we can in the NCAA Tournament. Our goal is to be the best we can be. I know we're going to turn a lot of heads and we're just really excited. I think we have a good group of girls and we'll have a good season."
Richards knows winning won't come easy this season with a schedule that includes five Top-25 teams and ten teams that won at least 20 games last season, but the tough schedule only drives her even more.
"I love it when it's a hard, tough, intense game," she said. "I love when the other team steps up and we have to answer and the pressure's rising; I love that."
And so as Richards watches her teammates warm-up for a recent game, laughing as Jenna Judkins dances to the warm-up tape and then bowing her head in prayer with 20 of her best friends, she has but three words for the competition.
"Bring it on."