December has been good to BYU. Forget the bowl games in San Diego and Miami, forget the key non-conference road and home games against Stanford or UMass, even forget the fact that students are given time off for the holidays. For the last three years the month of December has been all about the BYU Women's Volleyball team. In 2012 and 2013, it brought the Cougars trips to the Sweet Sixteen at the NCAA Volleyball Tournament, and this year the Cougars looked to do as well with the return of star Jennifer Hamson. Nobody outside the locker room would have guessed that they would top 2013 with their tournament run in 2014. And once again BYU became a volleyball school, if only for a month.
The season started just as planned with three straight sweeps before a hiccup against the 5th ranked Washington Huskies put some pressure on the Cougars. A five set loss at home was the last thing anyone expected, but three matches later a loss against the 14th ranked Rams of Colorado State threatened the season before it was a quarter of the way over.
With determination and effort the Cougars didn't let a couple of losses phase them as they went on to post sweeps in eight of their next nine matches and didn't lose multiple sets until another five set match handed the Cougars their third loss of the year. Again three matches later the Cougars lost, this time being swept by Santa Clara, and the Cougar fans began to wonder how far the talented team could go. The sweep at Santa Clara turned out to be their last loss of the regular season as they finished out conference play with seven straight wins, four of which were swept, and the conference title.
With a 25-4 record, the conference title, and a ranking of 12th in the country the Cougars made it into the NCAA Tournament albeit as an unseeded participant. BYU entered the tournament with a chip on their shoulder and a desire to prove that the Cougars belonged and that their ranking was not a fluke. In the first round the Cougars faced off against Seton Hall and dispatched them 3-0. Then the upsets began to take place. BYU Faced off against the 11 ranked Arizona Wildcats, on their home court, in the second round and only allowed them one set as the Cougars moved on to the Sweet Sixteen for the third straight year.
The fans were clamoring for more and caught the Cougar bug as the women faced off against a tough 6th ranked Florida State. The match was in Seattle and the Cougar faithful traveled well as they cheered on their team. Again the Cougars went to work early and only allowed the favored Seminoles one set before sending them home. As the team continued to face a slew of ranked opponents, the 14th ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers were next on the list. With both teams coming off upset wins in their previous matches, the Cougars were battling for only their second berth in the Final Four in program history. The tough Nebraska team played tough, but were no match for the determined Cougars as they sent the Cornhuskers packing with a sweep into the Final Four.
The Final Four proved to be the Cougars toughest match yet as they came up against a very experienced and 2nd ranked Texas Longhorns team. After winning the first two sets it looked like it was just a formality that the Cougars would reach their first National Championship game in history. Texas, however, had other plans. With a win in game three the Longhorns took the Cougars to the wire as they were tied at 24 in the fourth match. Fittingly, it was a Hamson kill that ended the match and continued the Cougars journey.
As the players, the school, and the fans rallied around the team it appeared that destiny had smiled upon the Cougars in 2014. Not only were the Cougars on a 12 game winning streak heading into the National Championship game, but they became the first unseeded team to make it to the title game in NCAA history. The mantra "Why not us" became a rallying cry for players and fans alike as support from around the country pushed the players as they celebrated their wins, but hungered for the next game.
The championship game didn't turn out how players and fans had hoped, but even a sweep by seven-time champion Penn State doesn't take away from the success the Cougars had. The spot in the finals was a well deserved end to a run that enthralled the fans and brought national championship hopes for Provo once again.
The success of the 2014 volleyball team was truly a team effort as they played with and for each other. In all the Cougars special season ended with national hype, a Coach of the Year award for Shawn Olmstead, an Elite 89 academic award for Amy Boswell, three All-American Accolades (Jennifer Hamson, Alexa Gray, and Amy Boswell), a conference player of the year (Alexa Gray), two players named to the NCAA All-Tournament team (Jennifer Hamson and Alexa Gray), a final ranking of #3 in the country, and a spot in the hearts of Cougar fans everywhere.
Nothing quite shows the domination as the fact that even with the five losses, the Cougars only lost 26 sets in 35 games. BYU had almost half as many hitting errors as their opponents (491-868), and more than double the blocks of their opponents (465.5-224). Hamson of course led the team in kills with 464 but Gray was close behind with 424. The top blocking team in the country was helped by unsuspecting 229 blocks (more than all opponents combined) by Whitney Young, 203 by Boswell, and another 163 by Hamson.
The Cougars will savor this season for a time before moving on to 2015, where they will be looking to replace Jennifer Hamson, but will be bringing back the core of their team. It will be hard to match the amazing run of 2014, but if anyone is to doubt these Cougars, just ask yourself...Why not us.