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Shawn Olmstead kept the band together, and now No. 2 Cougars have sights set on fourth national title

Top-seeded BYU is hosting the MPSF tournament, which begins Thursday with quarterfinal matches at Smith Fieldhouse; Cougars drew a first-round bye and will play in Friday’s semifinals.

BYU men’s volleyball star Gabi Garcia Fernandez, shown here in a 2020 match, was named MPSF Player of the Year on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Garcia Fernandez and the No. 2-ranked Cougars are hosting the MPSF conference tournament April 22-24, 2021, at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

For BYU men’s volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead, the heavy lifting has already been done.

After last year’s MPSF conference tournament and NCAA Men’s Volleyball Tournament were canceled due to the pandemic with the Cougars the presumptive favorite to win both titles, the sixth-year coach had to keep the band together, so to speak.

He succeeded.

Every major contributor from that 2020 squad that was ranked No. 2 by the AVCA and coming off a 1-1 split at No. 1 Hawaii returned in 2021, and the Cougars are again eyeing a lengthy postseason run.

“That’s definitely the goal,” said graduate senior Miki Jauhiainen. “We haven’t talked as if it is national championship or bust, because I feel that may be dangerous. I could see how that could be a thing from the outside. But we are not vocalizing it in our locker room. We are just trying to focus on the next game and do our best.”

That next game comes Friday night, as the No. 2-ranked and host Cougars (17-3) play in a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinal game at 7 p.m. at Smith Fieldhouse. BYU earned the No. 1 seed by winning the MPSF regular-season title, going 9-1 at home and 8-2 on the road.

Quarterfinals began Thursday with these matchups: UCLA vs. Concordia (2 p.m.); USC vs. Grand Canyon (5 p.m.); Stanford vs. Pepperdine (8 p.m.).

The tournament will be reseeded after Thursday’s action, so the Cougars could see either Grand Canyon, USC, Concordia or Stanford, whichever team is the lowest remaining seed.

Friday’s other semifinal begins at 4 p.m. in Provo. The championship match is Saturday at 7 p.m. The winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament May 4-8 in Columbus, Ohio.

“We expect that if we play our best that good things will happen,” Jauhiainen said. “Hopefully we can execute and see how far we can go. We expect to go pretty far, but we have to like actually do it and not just hope that it happens.”

Olmstead told the Deseret News in February that BYU is “the same group, but a different team” because of an offseason of growth. He said he didn’t have to do a lot of persuading to get his main guys to come back because they are so hungry to deliver a national championship, something BYU hasn’t experienced since 2004.

The Cougars were the runner-up in 2013, 2016 and 2017, the 2017 second-place finish coming at, and at the hands of, Ohio State.

“We are confident that we are a really good team,” Olmstead said.

But so is almost every other team in the MPSF. Jauhianen, who is from Tampere, Finland, said this weekend’s matches “will be some of the best volleyball you will see anywhere.”

And the Cougars have some of the league’s best players, evidenced by Wednesday’s release of the MPSF’s postseason honors.

BYU senior opposite hitter Gabi Garcia Fernandez is the conference’s Player of the Year for the second consecutive season and one of three Cougars named to the All-MPSF First Team. Senior setter Wil Stanley and junior outside hitter Davide Gardini also made the first team.

Second-team honors went to senior middle blocker Felipe de Brito Ferreira and senior outside hitter Zach Eschenberg. Jauhiainen is on the honorable mention list.

Jauhiainen said it just made sense for him to return, because he’s married to a BYU track star (Payge) who still had a year of eligibility remaining as well. And there’s also some unfinished business at hand.

“This year and last year have been pretty much the same,” he said. “We picked up where we left off. We just need to maintain that (sense of urgency). A lot of it is mental, to be honest.”

Olmstead told @FloVolleyball.tv, which will televise the tournament, that this year’s team has the same potential as last year’s, but hasn’t been as consistent. Olmstead said he and his assistant coaches have been working hard to identity weaknesses and inconsistencies since the Cougars dropped their regular-season finale to UCLA 3-1 on April 10.

“Every match is a different challenge, no matter what you have done in the past,” he said.

Especially when that past happened more than a year ago.