Saturday afternoon, the Chiles Center transformed into the Brigham Young Smith Fieldhouse as Cougars fans filled the stands for the matine match. Neck and neck, toe to toe, the Portland Pilots battled it out in Chiles Center against the No. 9 Brigham Young Cougars in front of a BYU-heavy crowd, falling in three hard-fought sets, 25-20, 25-22 and 25-18.
The Cougars return four AVCA All-Americans, the national freshman of the year and the 2018 WCC Defensive player of the year. Last year, BYU went to the National Semifinals for the NCAA tournament last year, won the WCC and are set to finish first again this year.
The Pilot’s focus was on what they could control, moving away from thoughts of the Cougar’s reputation. The scoreboard and the stat sheet don’t reflect the elevated level of play from the Pilot’s side of the court.
“Every year we come in, knowing BYU is a good team,” junior setter Kellie Hughes set. “Them being ranked number nine is cool, but they’re the same as any other team to us because it’s about our side of the net.”
The Pilots started off on top, clicking as a team with in-system passes, but struggling when the ball was out of control on their side of the court. At times, the team struggled against their opponent’s aggressive float serves.
When the Pilots were passing dimes, junior setter Kellie Hughes set the team up for success, which the hitters found by hitting deep and hard into the corners. The numbers story was similar for the Pilots and Cougars, but from the court, the home team made more passing and hitting errors, giving free points to their opponent. The Pilots made so many scrappy emergency plays that showed the grit and determination this team had.
“After the first two sets we wanted to keep our foot on the gas pedal and we wanted to keep a sense of urgency,” senior Shayla Hoeft said. “Defensively, serve-receive and serving we did that and we can always upgrade these things.”
The team came together in the first and second sets, Hughes clicking with the hitters, highlighting the strength and dexterity of the Pilot’s offense. From the left side, freshman Jayde Harris had six kills and junior Liz Reich had nine.
“Hitters did such a great job when the set wasn’t there and they would manage and put it in a tough spot for BYU,” Hughes said. “Our backrow was doing a great job nailing perfect stuff on the net for me.”
The team recorded seven team blocks that resulted in a Pilot point, but the front line’s blocks and soft touches set up the defense for success.
From the right side, sophomore Claire Forrest had eight kills and contributed to two blocks. Forrest teamed up with senior middle Katie Barker to get soft touches on some aggressive BYU swings, giving the defense a better look at the ball.
“I thought defensively it was a real big deal the way we played defensive as a unit,” Baxter said. ”The communication was at a really high level.”
The backrow came up big for Portland. Junior libero Carey Williams carried her back row, leading with nine digs, followed by Hughes and freshman Grace Zilbert, with eight and seven digs, respectively.
“I think defensively we played really well,” Hoeft said. “First contacts we’ve been trying to upgrade and I think it showed today what we’ve been working on in practice.”
The Pilot’s defense at the net was headlined by seniors Barker and Hoeft from the middle blocker position, Barker with two blocks and Hoeft with five. They finished the match with six and ten kills.
“I think today we found a new level of what each of us could do,” Hughes said. “It was a really cool thing to be a part of.”
In the third set, the Cougars got a hot start with some early Pilot service errors, leaving the home team trailing for the set. Despite trailing in the last set, Portland kept the pressure on BYU the entire afternoon.
“You don’t want to lose matches, and I’m not a fan of moral victories, but I am a fan of taking things you’re working on and putting them in the match,” head coach Jeff Baxter said. “I think the team realized we got a lot better this week.”
Next match the Pilots will travel to Malibu, California to face off against the Pepperdine Waves on Thursday Oct. 3.
Morgan Wahler is a sports reporter at The Beacon. She can be reached at email@example.com.