When Brigham Young University hired Jason Watson to lead its women's volleyball team, it didn't have to search very far for the coach who could return the program to national prominence while embracing its storied past.
Watson, a 1995 graduate and four-year starter for the BYU men's team, had spent the previous three seasons as an assistant coach with women's program and was well aware of the traditions and expectations of Cougar volleyball.
Under the tutelage of long-time coach Elaine Michaelis, BYU had been a fixture in the national rankings and postseason championships. During her 40-year tenure, the Cougars appeared in 21 of 23 NCAA tournaments and had 28 consecutive seasons with 20 or more victories. But since her retirement in 2001, BYU had made just one NCAA Tournament appearance and was not ranked in any of the final polls.
"We have a reminder every day of the great legacy of coach Michaelis here at BYU," Watson said. "We practice on Elaine Michaelis Court and we play on Elaine Michaelis Court. There are very few volleyball coaches, if any, in the country who have a court named after them. She is BYU women's volleyball.
"We have to be stewards of her program. She's won more volleyball matches than I have even seen. So there's a big responsibility to get this program back and to live up to the high standard which she set."
Two months into the Watson era, it appears his team is well on its way to adding to the legacy of BYU volleyball.
The Cougars will take a 13-0 record and No. 16 ranking into this weekend's home matches with Air Force and New Mexico. BYU is one of only five undefeated teams remaining in Division I, and if it wins its next match against the Falcons, the Cougars will equal the program's best start since the 1977 campaign.
Last weekend, BYU posted important road victories at Colorado State and Wyoming to maintain sole possession of first place in the Mountain West Conference. It was the Cougars' first sweep at CSU since 1988. Combined with a home victory against Utah, BYU has three conference victories it was unable to attain in 2004.
"It was a great weekend," senior setter Lauren Richards Evans said. "We prepared hard, our coaches put together a good scouting report and we just went in and got the job done."
The play of Richards Evans is one of the reasons BYU is a serious contender to win the conference title and a legitimate threat to make a run deep into the NCAA Tournament. The daughter of two former Cougar volleyball players (David and Lori Richards) Richards Evans is in her third season running the offense and ranks 21st in the nation in assists with 13.04 per game.
"She has matured tremendously this year," Watson said. "It's not a very complicated offense, but she runs it incredibly efficiently and is making some great decisions. She's been able to create a great deal of confidence with our hitters and talk with them about options and what it is she feels they need to do."
Her leadership was especially important early in the season when BYU was playing most of its matches on the road. The Cougars went into the season unranked, but jumped into the poll for the first time since 2002 after defeating Duke and then-No. 14 Ohio State.
"That was an important weekend for us," Watson said. "We felt for people to recognize that our program had made some strides, we needed to compete well on the road. And that was our biggest challenge to date, both Duke and Ohio State. I thought it certainly helped us gain a great deal of confidence in being able to go five games."
That confidence paid dividends the following weekend, when BYU had to go five games to pull out conference wins at New Mexico and Air Force. The Cougars have been taken to the limit five times this season, and each time they have found a way to win. Now it appears their opponents might have to play particularly well just to take a game.
Not only is BYU efficient on the attack, it is also incredibly well balanced. Junior middle blocker Lindsy Hartsock is second in Division I with a .469 hitting percentage and is averaging 3.29 kills per game. Outside hitters Chelsea Goodman and Erica Lott are averaging 3.92 and 3.84 kills per game, respectively.
"Both of our outside hitters are sophomores, and we have a redshirt freshman in Rachel Dyer playing opposite Hartsock," Watson said. "There were some question marks coming into camp in the fall with those three positions. We weren't sure what was going to happen, but we've been absolutely thrilled.
"We have a wonderful redshirt freshman setter in Amy Schlauder who came in and played the last four games against Ohio State. We've got a great deal of confidence in all of them. We feel real good about our team, the depth we have -- and as we continue to get better -- where we can go in the future."
Two places the Cougars expect to go are to the top of the Mountain West Conference and then onto the NCAA Tournament.
"We definitely set a goal of winning the Mountain West Conference title," Richards Evans said. "Our other goal is to go pretty far in the NCAA Tournament."
The success of this year's team is especially important to Richards Evans, who is the only remaining Cougar who played for Michaelis.
"It will forever be Elaine Michaelis' program," she said. "It's awesome that we have a good team again and we are able to represent her and our school."
Team of the Week
Penn State posted a key road victory on Saturday night with a 3-0 victory over eighth-ranked Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions extended their winning streak to nine matches with a 30-21, 30-25, 30-22 victory in front of almost 7,000 Badger fans. PSU now owns sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with a 6-0 record, one match ahead of both Wisconsin and No. 9 Minnesota. Freshman middle hitter Christa Harmotto was named the Big Ten Player of the Week after helping the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions remain the only undefeated team in the Big Ten. Harmotto had a match-high 13 kills and posted a .417 hitting percentage at Wisconsin, and was even better in Friday's sweep at Northwestern when she had 10 kills on 13 attacks without an error. Penn State will play host to Michigan and Michigan State this weekend. Friday's match with Michigan will be televised on a tape-delay basis by ESPN2 (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET).
Santa Clara will put its share of first place in the West Coast Conference on the line when the 14th-ranked Broncos play host to No. 15 San Diego Saturday. Santa Clara is 15-1 overall and 4-0 in the conference, while San Diego is 12-3 and 3-1. The Broncos extended their winning streak to eight matches last weekend with 3-0 wins over Portland and Gonzaga. USD avoided an upset bid by crosstown rival San Diego State Tuesday night, hanging on for a 30-15, 27-30, 30-22, 27-30, 15-10 victory. No. 18 Texas may have the most difficult week with matches at home against No. 7 Missouri and at No. 1 Nebraska. The Longhorns, who are tied for second place with the Tigers, will try to become the first team to upset the top-ranked Huskers and only the second team to take a game from NU at Nebraska Coliseum this season.
San Diego State sophomore defensive specialist Aime Cordeiro set a Mountain West Conference single-match record with 35 digs against UNLV. Her total was one better than Wyoming freshman Carissa Lee's old mark of 34 digs set just over a month ago vs. Northern Colorado. Tennessee junior setter Julie Knytych recorded career assist No. 5,000 during a 3-0 win at Georgia. She is the second player in school history and the 10th in SEC annals to reach the milestone. Senior libero Amy Morris reached the 1,000-dig mark in Tennessee's victory at Georgia. Portland senior setter Sheena Surplus became just the second player in the program's history to surpass the 4,000-assist plateau. She finished the weekend with 4,008 and needs just 180 more to become the Pilots' career record holder. Senior setter Megan Clark became just the fourth player in Miami (Ohio) history to reach the 3,000 career assist barrier. Senior setter Ashley Musser eclipsed the 2,000-assist mark to become just the fifth player in Navy history to reach the milestone. Washington senior outside hitter Brie Hagerty became the 12th Husky to go over the 1,000-kill mark during a 3-1 victory at Stanford. Megan Zanto became the 13th player in Montana State history to reach the 1,000-kill mark when she tallied 14 in a five-game loss to Eastern Washington. Junior setter Chrissy Gothke became the ninth player in Bowling Green history to record 1,000 career digs with eight during a sweep of Akron. Michigan State sophomore libero Nicole Colaluca broke a 16-year-old school record for digs in a three-game match when she tallied 28 in a loss to Purdue. Utah sophomore middle blocker Emillie Toone tied the school record for block assists (12) in a five-game match against Colorado State. Murray State middle blocker Holly Jansen set a school record for block assists in a four-game match when she had 10 rejections against Morehead State. Buffalo set a school record for team hitting percentage in a five-game match (.349) in a victory over Canisius. American University saw its 61-match league winning streak come to an end with a 3-0 loss to Army. The Eagles had never been swept in a Patriot League match. AU's streak is tied for the seventh longest in Division I history. LSU finished its 17-match road stretch with a 13-4 record. The Tigers traveled nearly 10,000 miles, while spending 26 of 46 days away from their campus in Baton Rouge. Sharon Dingman earned victory No. 100 at Illinois State when the Redbirds swept Northern Iowa.
Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.