PROVO — The BYU men's volleyball season ended sooner than has become the norm, which speaks well to the level achieved by the program, but also creates worry about the extraordinary drop in play during the 2019 season.
The Cougars (13-12) spent a good portion of the season ranked just outside of the top 10 after being ranked well inside the top 10 and even the top five throughout the past three seasons. Those three seasons saw the Cougars advance to the six-team NCAA tournament and advance clear to the championship match in two of those seasons. Furthermore, only one time since 2009 has BYU won less than 20 games with the 2015 team managing 17 wins against 10 losses.
So why the sudden dip in overall production?
As is the case with most teams, a host of factors conspired to hold the team down this past season, although a few aspects are quite glaring.
First and foremost would be the relative youth and inexperience with not just the players, but also BYU coach Shawn Olmstead's coaching staff. Olmstead had to replace top assistants Luka Slabe and Jaylen Reyes just prior to the 2019 season, replacing both with a couple of young first-year collegiate coaches in Devin Young and Micah Naone.
"The new staff has been great, but I'm not going to lie, a lot of the things that have been clockwork in years past (have changed)," Olmstead said midway through the 2019 season. "So it's been a bit of a perfect storm with the new players. But you learn and improve together. … I have a lot of confidence in my staff."
As for those players, BYU's roster featured nine freshmen among the 19 players on the team and just one senior in libero Taylor Richards. The two leading scorers on the team were sophomore Gabi Garcia Fernandez and freshman Davide Gardini, who logged 142 and 109 kills respectively in 2019.
Indeed, Fernandez (6-foot-7) and Gardini (6-9) pose a typically powerful and talented hitting duo, an aspect most BYU teams have enjoyed during the team's remarkably successful run just prior to this past season.
What was missing behind BYU's stellar frontline was enough good touches to set them up in rhythm throughout too many critical junctures. It's sort of like fielding a football team with extremely talented skill position players, but a subpar offensive line that can't open enough holes for those who touch to the ball to show the producton they're capable of.
Adding significantly to the team's inability to consistently set up prime scoring opportunities was the loss of junior setter Wil Stanley. Stanley incurred a season-ending leg injury midway through the season with the Cougars struggling with their consistency to end out the season. Sure, players like junior Cyrus Fa'alogo and freshman Brody Earnest filled in admirably at times, but the overall impact of Stanley's injury wasn't a positive by any means.
Stanley should be good to go when the 2020 season rolls around, as will the rest of the players and staff, hoping to put the woes of the 2019 season behind them. There's every reason to be optimistic of BYU's chances at improving, considering the wealth of talent still within the program coupled with a staff that will undoubtedly see improvements in its second year.
The 2020 season will begin in early January, with Olmstead and his crew hoping to make strides to get the program back to where most have come to expect.