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Underdog or favorite? BYU aims to define its worth in the court

December 7, 2018

Can a team from a Power 5 conference really be considered an underdog?

The BYU women’s volleyball team is hosting an NCAA regional this week, having earned the No. 4 overall seed in the tournament. The other three teams in the regional — Florida, Texas and Michigan — represent the blue bloods of the women’s college volleyball world: The SEC, the Big 12 and the Big Ten, respectively.

The Gators — BYU’s opponent on Thursday — were the national runner-up last season. The Longhorns have appeared in 13 straight Sweet 16s and the Wolverines play in the premier volleyball conference in the country.

Florida coach Mary Wise brought out the “U” word during Thursday’s news conference.

“This team has embraced the underdog mentality,” she said. “We feel like it’s been such a rewarding and fulfilling season with all we’ve faced and overcome. This will be our greatest challenge, but this group is up for it.”

Senior setter Allie Monserez added, “Tomorrow (against BYU) we really have to come in with that underdog mentality and just keep that same focus that we’ve had toward the end of season, knowing that we trust each other and have confidence in each person.”

It’s not that BYU hasn’t earned the role of favorite. The Cougars were ranked No. 1 for 11 weeks in 2018. Under Heather Olmstead, BYU has posted a 116-12 mark (90 percent) the past four seasons. The Cougars have advanced to the Sweet 16 seven straight times and dominated the West Coast Conference, which is considered a good league, but not on par with the Power 5 conferences.

Yes, BYU is the highest seed and yes, the Cougars are playing at home in a regional for the first time since 1986. But in the end, “favorite” and “underdog” are just labels.

“Once the match starts tomorrow, volleyball is volleyball,” BYU senior outside hitter Roni Jones-Perry said. “Having our fan base here will be awesome but it’s going to come down to who plays the best volleyball.”

Her teammate, junior libero Mary Lake, said, “Our team has an understanding that rankings or anything the media or anyone says doesn’t really matter once you step on the court. I don’t really ever think of underdog vs. expectations. That just dilutes the game.

“I don’t think we have any expectations for tomorrow and I don’t think our coaches do. We just want to go out there and play the best that we can and we want Florida to play the best that they can.”

BYU hasn’t advanced past the Sweet 16 since 2014 when it reached the NCAA title match. In 2015, 2016 and 2017, the Cougars fell short against Nebraska, Texas and Kentucky, respectively.

Blue bloods from Power 5 conferences again stand in BYU’s way.

“I think we always feel like we’re the underdog,” Olmstead said. “Not that we have anything to prove to anybody but ourselves. We’re just trying to be the best we can be, to prove to ourselves we can go out and win our next match. That’s what our task is tomorrow, to win our next match. If that motivates people, then so be it. We just want to play for each other and see how good this group can be. That’s what’s going to motivate us tomorrow.”