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Provo • After practice ended Tuesday afternoon, BYU volleyball star Alexa Gray was still on the court, taking pictures with her cell phone to preserve memories of a phenomenal senior year.
The All-America candidate, who will graduate next spring with a degree in photography, isn't eager for the season to end. She wants to lead the 13th-seeded Cougars deep into the NCAA Tournament, like last year when unseeded BYU made it to the championship game.
"We are happy just to make the tournament," said Gray, named the West Coast Conference Player of the Year on Tuesday for the second consecutive year. "We are excited to have the chance to compete against the best teams in the nation. The seeding doesn't really matter at the end of the day, as you can see from last year."
The tournament begins Friday at 16 venues across the country, including BYU's Smith Fieldhouse. The WCC champion Cougars will host Mid-American Conference champion Ohio (25-7) at 7 p.m., or a half-hour after Arizona (19-13) and Western Kentucky (31-3) tangle at 5 p.m.
Friday's winners meet on Saturday at 7 p.m. for a shot at advancing to the regional semifinals at the University of Kentucky on Dec. 11.
After the tournament, Gray will focus on graduating, pick an agent and start thinking about a professional volleyball career. The Canadian is that good, said first-year BYU coach Heather Olmstead.
"I think Alexa can go on and continue to play overseas, and for a national team if she wants," said Olmstead, the WCC Coach of the Year. "I think the sky is the limit for her, and she can keep getting better, as she's already shown this season."
Fellow senior Amy Boswell was named the WCC's Defensive Player of the Year and made the All-WCC first team. Senior libero Ciara Parker and junior middle blocker Whitney Young Howard earned all-league honorable mention accolades and outside hitter Veronica Jones made the all-freshman team.
Gray averaged 5.59 kills per set and was first in the conference in kills average as well as first in points per set (6.17).
"Alexa put in a lot of work in the offseason with her passing and her back row [work] and with her attacking also," Olmstead said. " She just put in the work, and it is paying off this season. She really wanted to be a six-rotation player and just patiently waiting her turn. She's been playing six rotations in practice all four years, but not so much in matches. She just really took that opportunity to step up and fill that role, and I think she has done it wonderfully each match."
Gray grew up in Calgary, Alberta, and lost her mother, Stacey French, in an automobile accident when she was 13 years old. Her father is Evric Gray, a former UNLV basketball star who currently lives in Salt Lake City and attends every BYU home match.
Former BYU women's coach Shawn Olmstead, now the men's coach and Heather Olmstead's brother, told Gray back in 2011 that if she would come to BYU, she and the program would do something special with her outstanding athleticism and volleyball skills.
"I have no regrets," Gray said. "This was the best decision I could have made. I have grown as a person and it is really fun to see how the girls I came in with have grown as well and how close we've become. I will really take away a lot of friendships from BYU. I wouldn't trade it for the world and I've loved being here."
Heather Olmstead said the experience last year of winning five matches before losing to Penn State in the finals should serve the Cougars well.
"We have goals that we want, but as far as expectations go, we know how we can play," Olmstead said. "It is a totally different year, totally different team, and they have new goals that they want to achieve with this team."
NCAA Women's Volleyball Tournament
P At Smith Fieldhouse, Provo
Friday's first-round matches
• Arizona (19-13) vs. Western Kentucky (31-3), 5 p.m.
• No. 13 BYU (26-3) vs. Ohio (25-7), 7 p.m.
Saturday's second-round match
• First-round winners, 7 p.m.