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Provo • From the sunny beaches of Southern California and a Roman Catholic high school to cold and snowy Provo and Mormon Church-owned Brigham Young University.

That's the unusual road Erik Sikes has taken, and BYU's junior libero is proud of it and flourishing, after the usual early reservations almost all non-LDS athletes seem to experience when they arrive at BYU.

"It was tough at first," Sikes conceded as the No. 3 Cougars' volleyball team prepared Tuesday for a pair of MPSF matches at No. 8 Stanford this weekend. "It was a lot different that what I was used to, but I knew the coaches were good and the teammates I had were going to be really good, and I could see myself improving here and helping them and contending for national championships, so I stuck with it."

That sounds like it has been a fairly easy journey for the 6-foot-2 defensive specialist who started his career as an outside hitter before realizing he was never going to be tall enough to be successful in that position. He switched to libero — the back row player who wears a different color of jersey and is mostly responsible for receiving serves and orchestrating the defense — at Santa Margarita Catholic High in South Orange County, Calif.

But it has been anything but a breeze, due to two major knee injuries.

Sikes tore his right ACL in the final practice of his freshman season in 2015 when he ran into some bleachers, but didn't realize it until two months later when he was visiting with newly hired coach Shawn Olmstead, who suggested he get it looked at by a physician.

He was cleared before the 2016 season, and became a contributor on a team that made it to the national championship match before losing to Ohio State. He led the Cougars in digs (195) and digs per set (2.01).

Last October, Sikes injured the same knee, this time tearing his meniscus during routine serving and passing drills. He was cleared to play last month, but has taken it more slowly this time. Sikes didn't see his first action until the Jan. 19 match against Cal State Northridge, and didn't appear in back-to-back matches until early February against UCLA.

"I am practicing almost every day and I can practice throughout the entire [session]," he said. "Sometimes I will stop if it is bothering me, but I think I am to the point where I can play two matches in a row without too much pain."

Olmstead, who is also managing injuries suffered by stars Ben Patch (groin) and Brenden Sander (leg), said he watches Sikes' health and well-being closely and relies on the junior to provide feedback regarding whether he can practice and play.

"People who know Erik and are able to watch Eric know he's not himself," Olmstead said. "So if we can allow him to rest and get that strength back to the point where he feels healthy and confident, then in my mind he can go back-to-back [matches]."

Olmstead said having a healthy Sikes will be critical down the stretch for the Cougars.

"We need him to just kind of control the back row, in terms of being a calming influence, and on the panic plays … own and control that," Olmstead said.

Sikes, who had a season-high 12 digs in the 3-0 sweep at USC on Feb. 10, said he has learned to listen to his body with the knowledge if he goes too hard one day, he will feel it the next. Playing libero has become second nature, as has adjusting to BYU, which lured him away from offers from UCLA and USC in 2014 when he stunned a lot of observers by choosing the Cougars.

"The fans and everything have made it fun," he said. "And the coverage we get is all kind of surreal — not every program gets the attention we get. That's why I chose to come here. Plus, it is a good school."

Twitter: @drewjay —


• Defending conference champion Cougars are 12-6 overall, 6-1 in the MPSF.

• Injuries have slowed big hitters Ben Patch and Brenden Sander recently, but senior Jake Langlois and juniors Leo Durkin, Price Jarman and Erik Sikes have carried the load.

• No. 3 BYU plays at No. 8 Stanford on Thursday (Pac-12 Network) and Friday in a pair of key MPSF matches.