Bower sisters destined to be part of BYU's NCAA volleyball tournament run and beyond

BYU freshmen Whitney, left, and Morgan Bower were born to play volleyball at Brigham Young University -- it's in their blood. Kim Raff for ESPN

PROVO, Utah -- Whitney Bower shouldn't even be here right now.

As she takes the court as part of Brigham Young University's starting women's volleyball lineup on a crisp November Saturday, one question echoes around the packed stands at Smith Fieldhouse.

"Did you know she's only 17?"

Initially slated to graduate high school in 2020, Bower simply couldn't stand the idea of her older sister, Morgan, playing a season without her. So, last school year, she crammed a year-and-a-half's worth of classes into one semester -- that's 14 classes (eight in person and six online) to forgo her senior year and earn her high school diploma.

Morgan Bower, cheering from the bench, shouldn't be here, either. In eighth grade, she was diagnosed with a rare joint disease, and her doctor told her she would never be able to play volleyball again.

Now the sisters are both freshmen, despite 16 months separating them, and ready to head to their first NCAA women's volleyball tournament together. The 14th-seeded Cougars (25-4) begin their quest to return to the final four this Friday against New Mexico State (27-3) at home at 9 p.m. ET.

There's no doubt both sisters were born to play volleyball for BYU. It's in their blood. Their mother, Caroline [Steuer] Bower, was a member of the BYU volleyball team in the late 1990s. Their father, Danny, played on the basketball team, and his father, Wayne, played BYU football in the early 1970s. Caroline and Danny met while students and married before Caroline's junior year.

"We've been coming here and hearing about it from our parents since for as long as we can remember," Morgan said, sitting next to Whitney on the day before the team's penultimate regular-season match against Gonzaga. "It's weird to think about it because our parents came here, our grandparents came here, so many of our cousins, and now we're the next generation. And, hopefully, our kids will be the next generation."

Morgan and Whitney, who turned 18 two days before the end of the regular season, have the ease and familiarity with each other that some might associate with twins. They communicate with a single look; they fight over silly things, like taking too long to respond to a text message, but otherwise seem to love being around each other.

Whitney adoringly calls Morgan "Mo," and they both seem to prefer to talk about the other one more than themselves. They rarely answer questions with "I," -- it almost always is "we" instead. Their personalities complement each other and bring out the best in both. If Whitney is too opinionated or emotional, Morgan calms her down; if Morgan is struggling with a decision, Whitney helps her see it clearly.

"I always call them 'the yin and the yang' because they really balance each other out," Caroline said. "One will have a bad day, the other one apparently had a great day that day but then will try to help the other. Their personalities seem to mesh really well. They just are a good balance for each other."

Whitney has started in all 29 matches and played in every set of the season, breaking BYU's freshman records for assists (1,016 through Nov. 27), aces (37) and double-doubles (10). In her debut against Boise State, she totaled 31 assists, five aces, five digs, two kills and one block. The team knew she would be good, but no one seemed to realize just how good.

"Whitney is not only a proven winner at every level she's played on, but she has that rare ability to make everyone around her better," BYU head coach Heather Olmstead said. "She is really special. I see her playing professionally and even playing for the [national team] if that's what she wants to do."

Olmstead's fellow West Coast Conference coaches have been equally impressed by Whitney's play -- she was named to the All-WCC first team and the conference's all-freshman team on Monday.

Morgan's season hasn't been as prolific, but her lack of playing time doesn't seem to discourage her. As a libero, her limited role this season isn't a surprise. She is playing behind senior Mary Lake, a reigning second-team All-American, three-time WCC libero of the year and member of the U.S. national team. She is happy to learn from one of the best in the game.

"For me, watching Morgan and Whitney now, it's amazing," Caroline said. "I went through this all myself, before I was married, before I was thinking about kids and I was living my own dream playing here for this team. But then to see my kids having these opportunities like I had, and I felt like they were some of the best days I've ever had, some of the best moments I've ever had good and bad, the ups and the downs.

"I'm so happy they get to have these moments and experiences. I'm just so proud of them, and so happy they get this opportunity together."

And now, that next opportunity is a shot at the national title.

During their summers at home as children and teenagers, Morgan and Whitney spent many hours on the family farm, pruning plants, tending to vegetables, mucking barn stalls and raising animals. They typically would spend their nights out on the land, together, doing whatever needed to get done. An early morning gym session doesn't seem too demanding in comparison to some of their shifts.

What has been grueling for Morgan is osteochondritis dissecans, a joint disorder in her left knee she has had since eighth grade. She has had three surgeries to help repair it. Considering the doctor who initially diagnosed her said she would never be able to play again, she's grateful for the opportunity.

"I have these scars on my knee to remind me of what I've been through," she said, fighting back tears. "It definitely makes me emotional seeing them every day, and it's crazy to think I still have complications with it five years after the first surgery. But every time I put my hands on my legs, just before every serve-receive, and I feel my left knee, I think 'I'm here for a reason.'"

Morgan's challenges have made Whitney more appreciative of her own health.

"Morgan has taught me what it means to be grateful," Whitney said. "I'm grateful for being able to play but also for my body. She has shown me that every moment counts, everything counts, and I can't take anything for granted."

Both sisters also credit spending time outside for keeping them grounded and providing an outlet when volleyball and school get to be too much. Morgan enjoys fly fishing and the quiet it brings and patience it entails. She has led groups for overnight excursions and especially loves teaching the sport to children.

"It's hard to get them to stay still, which is obviously so important, but I make up imaginary fairy tale-like stories," she said with a laugh. "I tell them it's a magic stick and they can't move. And when they reel it in, it has to be as still and quiet as possible so nothing bad happens to the stick."

Whitney said she doesn't have the same level of patience as her older sister but would like to get better at fly fishing. She instead excels at turkey calling. As kids, they would go on hunts with their dad, and he discovered Whitney had a knack for it. She even participated in contests growing up.

They are both looking forward to spending more time exploring Provo's river and mountains once the season is over, but for the time being, volleyball is their primary focus.

"When Morgan got here for her first semester, she was coming to the gym on her own to practice her serve and pass at 5 in the morning. It was January at that point, so it was very dark at that time, and we had to tell her she had to stop and that she needed sleep," Olmstead said. "We recruit players that want to get better and put in the time on their own as well as with the team, but that's just the mentality she, and the whole family has."

If you want to get technical, Friday won't be Morgan's first NCAA tournament appearance. That was actually in 1999. Caroline was a member of the team and was in the early stages of pregnancy with Morgan during her senior season. The third-seeded Cougars lost in the regional semifinals, and Caroline didn't tell anyone, other than her husband, until after the season.

Caroline didn't want to be a distraction for her teammates at the time, and she still doesn't like talking about it. It's clear it pains her that people know about it now, and she doesn't understand how or why it's written as part of Morgan's biography on the school athletic website. "Did someone go back and do the math or something?" she joked when asked about it.

Despite living about six hours away from the school in Danny's hometown of Nampa, Idaho, the family -- including five younger sisters -- has attended as many sporting events at the school as they could while Morgan and Whitney were growing up, and the girls have heard countless stories over the years about their parents' time as students and athletes.

"I walk around campus and I see older professors and teachers, and they say, 'Oh my gosh!' because they taught my parents, and even my grandparents in some cases," Whitney said. "There are some people here in the athletic department as well -- some trainers that worked with my mom -- and it just creates this atmosphere of total trust and comfort."

"To represent something so much larger than ourselves and have that written across our bodies and to do it as a family, it was honestly a breathtaking moment." BYU libero Morgan Bower

Morgan is the oldest sibling but Whitney was the first sister to commit to BYU. She was only a freshman in high school, and it took her all of 10 seconds to accept a recruiting offer. Her answer was so immediate, even Olmstead remembers telling her she should probably check in with her family first.

But Whitney didn't want to waste anyone's time, including her own; playing for the Cougars was all she could ever remember wanting. A sophomore at the time Whitney committed, Morgan had already been offered a spot on the BYU team as well as with several other universities. Like Whitney, Morgan had dreamed of playing for the decorated program since she first started playing the sport but was hesitant as BYU didn't offer a dental hygienist degree.

Ultimately the opportunity to play with her sister was just too good to pass up -- and she discovered she could take classes for dental hygiene at nearby Utah Valley University. Together the sisters dreamed about their time at the school and went to as many matches as they could. After watching the Cougars reach the 2018 final four in Minneapolis, they couldn't wait to do whatever they could to help the team win its first national title.

Morgan didn't have to wait long. She graduated high school a semester early and joined the team in January shortly after its tournament run. She was happy to have a semester to acclimate herself to college life before volleyball season but knew it would be tough without Whitney. They had been playing together their whole lives and shared a bedroom at their family home in Idaho. As it turned out, Whitney didn't want to be apart for that long either.

Once again knowing exactly what she wanted, Whitney reached out to the coaching staff to see if there would be a spot in the incoming freshman class if she were to graduate high school a year early. They were supportive and said they would help her reclassify if she could complete her academic requirements. She announced the change in a tweet in April, which ended with "Morgan... I AM BACK!!!"

She joined Morgan in Provo over the summer, and the two became roommates and teammates once again.

"That first day when we put on the BYU jersey for the first time, it was the coolest thing," Morgan said. "To represent something so much larger than ourselves and have that written across our bodies and to do it as a family, it was honestly a breathtaking moment."

For the Bowers, faith, family and volleyball are essentially one and the same. The family belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU. Family is at the core of the religion, so the sisters say they relish the chance to stick together and attend a school with such deep ties.

After the family moved to Idaho from Utah in 2006, Caroline was distraught by the lack of volleyball clubs in the state because she wanted her daughters to try the sport, so she started her own. Morgan and Whitney were the first two players for the Idaho Crush. Their team stuck together from elementary school throughout high school, and every player from that group is currently competing at the Division I level.

Now, 13 years after its inception, the club boasts 24 teams across all ages and has nearly 30 coaches on staff. There are players who drive several hours each way to be a part of the program, and all five of the younger Bower sisters -- ranging in ages from 6 to 15 -- are involved. Danny jokes he is still hoping one of them will want to play basketball competitively, but he has come to love volleyball equally and is just happy they all are involved in sports.

"Having the Crush has been so special for us," Caroline said. "To be such a part of the lives of these young women, and watch their journey from when they were little girls to now, where they are competing at the next level and doing well, and more importantly seeing what kind of women they've become, it's incredible."

Not only did playing for the Crush help develop both sisters' talents, but it made Whitney realize what she wants to do after her playing days. She hopes to follow in her mother's footsteps and be a coach. Caroline is thrilled, and Whitney spends a large chunk of her days when she's not in class or at practice in Olmstead's office, talking shop.

"It's very abnormal for a freshman to feel so comfortable to come to the head coach's office, but yet it feels so normal for Whitney," Olmstead said. "It didn't surprise me at all to know Whitney already knows exactly what she wants to do, and I absolutely see her as a coach. She knows so much about the sport and always wants to learn more."

Against Gonzaga, BYU drops the first set, but Whitney remains composed and focused. She tightens her ponytail any time she seems to be feeling any nerves, and it seems to instantly regain her focus. She records 43 assists as BYU comes back for a four-set win. Morgan doesn't play, but she cheers and encourages her teammates from the sidelines throughout the nearly two-hour match, and dances along when a song by Drake comes over the loudspeaker.

When it's all over and they've sung the school's fight song with the rest of their team and the adoring crowd, the sisters meet up with their parents, five younger sisters, classmates, teammates' parents and several of Caroline's former teammates in the stands. Caroline has made it to almost every match this season, even most on the road, but she still misses her oldest girls who Danny calls "her best friends."

The mood isn't exactly sentimental. Instead, everyone good-naturedly makes fun of Whitney for being so dirty because she dove on the floor so many times throughout the match. After all, she also recorded 13 digs.

The Cougars are going to need a lot more of Whitney's grit if they want to make another deep run. The team will potentially face Stanford, the No. 3 seed, in the third round. But no matter what happens, Whitney and Morgan are happy to be going through it -- win or lose -- together.

"I can't fully explain just how awesome it is to be here with her," Whitney said. "She's always there, and she's always got my back when I need her. Honestly what's better than that?"