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BYU men's volleyball: Cougars enter 2018 with high expectations and a different approach

BYU's Leo Durkin spikes the ball during action against Hawaii at the Smith Field House in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2017.
BYU's Leo Durkin spikes the ball during action against Hawaii at the Smith Field House in Provo on Friday, March 17, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — Much like other BYU athletic programs, the BYU men's volleyball team is implementing some degree of change to its style of play for the 2018 season.

The difference in play likely won't approach that of the men's basketball program, with regards to scheme and approach, but there will be necessary tweaks made in response to how last season finished.

"The dynamic is we're going to be a lot scrappier this year ... we're going to play a lot faster," explained senior setter Leo Durkin when asked how this year's team compares with those of recent years.

The Cougars reached the national championship match in each of the last two seasons, only to be swept away on both occasions by Ohio State. They did as much relying on tall, athletic big hitters, such as Ben Patch, Jake Langlois and Tim Dobbert while lacking the necessary serve-and-receive game of the Buckeyes, which ultimately did the Cougars in.

While most of the primary pin-hitters are gone, BYU returns some good talent at other spots, which includes senior libero Erik Sikes, Durkin, and sophomore setter Wil Stanley, among several others.

"It's a different team, but as a staff — we're really enjoying it. I really am. I just enjoy the personalities of this group a lot," said BYU coach Shawn Olmstead. "We've been fortunate to have some big outside (hitters), you know? So we don't have the size we've had at the pins so we've had to get better behind the block. So I think we've made major strides there."

The Cougars didn't lose everyone upfront, however, and return one of the better outside hitters in program history with senior Brenden Sander returning for his final season. The 6-foot-4 Huntington Beach native has contributed mightily since entering the program as a true freshman and now looks to finish out with his best form while being relied upon heavily.

"Every year I've come back impressed with the work he's done in the offseason, and this year I'm probably the most impressed," Olmstead said. "He's also developed a kind of leadership, so he's made major strides there. A lot of strides."

Other big hits are expected from a group of promising group of sophomores led by Storm Fa'agata-Tufuga (6-3), along with Tanner Skabelund (6-11) and Zach Eschenberg (6-6.) They'll be accompanied by some excited true freshmen, and primarily Gabi Garcia Fernandez (6-7) who is expected to see a lot of time at the opposite hitter position.

"He has a lot of experience. That's a kid who has played all over the world," Olmstead said of Fernandez, who hails from Puerto Rico. "He's a big strong kid, you know? And he has a good arm and a really good serve."

Olmstead is quick to point out a learning curve that will come Fernandez's way, but believes his upside is as high as other standout pin-hitters that have passed through the program.

At middle blocker senior Price Jarman (6-9) leads the way, along with sophomore Miki Jauhiainen (6-8) — both of whom saw a lot of playing time last season.

The goal at BYU will be to win a national championship, something the program has come just short of the last two seasons, while also proving it can make the trek to that final match. The Cougars will work to earn their spot in the NCAA tournament by competing in a different Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, which houses top programs such as UCLA, Stanford and USC while other top programs, like Long Beach State, UC Irvine and Hawaii move on to the newly-formed Big West Conference.

"That changes the game a little because in the MPSF we've been so strong," Olmstead said. "We now have to compete with the Big West, which took some of the best teams out of our conference. We're all curious to see how it goes."

BYU begins play this weekend hosting No. 13 Loyola-Chicago on Friday and then No. 6 Lewis on Saturday. The Cougars hold the No. 3 preseason ranking, which speaks to the program's strength despite the loss of several notable players.

"I don't look too much into it because I think a lot of it goes into past years," Olmstead said of his team's preseason ranking. "The reality is we lost some big contributors for us and our program, but we have some key guys back, and they know that, and it's respect for the work they've put in over the summer."