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Cougars sweep Pepperdine for MPSF crown, make case for a No. 1 seed in NCAA tourney

Tournament MVP Gabi Garcia Fernandez and all-tourney picks Zach Eschenberg and Wil Stanley lead the way as BYU wins by scores of 25-23, 25-15 and 25-19

BYU’s Davide Gardini turns and celebrates as BYU defeats Pepperdine in the finals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championship, at the Smith Field House in Provo on Saturday, April 24, 2021. BYU won in straight sets.
BYU’s Davide Gardini turns and celebrates as BYU defeats Pepperdine in the finals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championship, at the Smith Field House in Provo on Saturday, April 24, 2021. BYU won in straight sets.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

After No. 2-ranked BYU crushed Pepperdine 3-0 to win the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation men’s volleyball tournament Saturday night, Cougars senior Zach Eschenberg was asked to make a case for his team to be the No. 1 seed in May’s NCAA Tournament, especially after Hawaii, the presumed top seed most of the season, fell 3-2 to UC San Diego in the Big West conference tournament semifinals late Friday night.

Eschenberg deferred, saying he would prefer to stay in his own lane and just smash spikes on overmatched opponents’ heads. Maybe the reporter should have asked Pepperdine coach David Hunt, who found himself making a case for why the Waves (13-6), who have now lost five times to BYU, should be in the Big Dance as an at-large team.

The scores were 25-23, 25-15, 25-19 as the top-seeded Cougars (19-3) cruised after a very competitive first set.

“Obviously, BYU is a great, great team,” Hunt said.

Pepperdine’s only loss to a team not named BYU was to UCLA, and the Waves avenged that 3-2 loss with a 3-1 win the next day, and again 3-0 in the MPSF semifinals on Friday night before BYU swept Grand Canyon.

Most observers believe the final at-large berth — Hawaii will get the first, no question — will come down to UCLA or Pepperdine when the selection committee makes its decision on Sunday.

Of course, BYU would love the No. 1 seed, but the real sweating point for the Cougars will be to at least get a top-two seed, and a bye into the semifinals at nationals.

Asked about that at Saturday’s post-match news conference, BYU coach Shawn Olmstead took a similar approach as Eschenberg, who had a match-high 13 kills.

“Our body of work is out there for everyone to see,” Olmstead said. “Let them do their job. … I am not going to sit here and campaign either way.”

If he had to, the final two sets against Pepperdine would make for a fine campaign video. The Cougars simply dominated, especially at the net.

BYU finished with 13 blocks — Felipe de Brito Ferreira led the way with six — and Pepperdine had only one — which came late in the third set.

“Felipe brought really, really great energy,” Olmstead said.

A back-and-forth first set went BYU’s way when Ferreira came up with a huge block to give the Cougars the 25-23 win.

BYU hit .522 in the first set, while Pepperdine hit .500. The difference was BYU’s 5.5 team blocks, to Pepperdine’s none.

Eschenberg had a set-high six kills to carry BYU, as Gabi Garcia Fernandez got off to a slow start.

But the Puerto Rican who served spectacular against Grand Canyon and was named tournament MVP heated up, as he often does.

Garcia Fernandez finished with 10 kills, while Davide Gardini had seven — and engaged in some at-the-net jawing with Pepperdine’s Austin Wilmot that drew a stern warning from the up official.

“You can’t overlook the game-changer that is Gabi,” Olmstead said.

The Cougars carried their first-set momentum into the second set, and jumped out to a quick 8-0 lead. Gardini’s tip gave them a 25-15 win in set two.

BYU had nine blocks through two sets, Pepperdine none. The Cougars hit .993 in the set with 14 kills on 15 swings, and no errors.

In the third set, BYU broke from a 7-7 tie with a 3-1 run and then kept a 2-3 point cushion until pulling away with a 3-0 run to get to 20-15. BYU hit .344 in the third set, .471 in the match.

Eschenberg and Stanley joined Garcia Fernandez on the all-tournament team, along with Grand Canyon’s Camden Gianni, UCLA’s Cole Ketrzynski and Pepperdine’s Jacob Steele and Wilmot.

“It feels awesome to be conference champions,” Eschenberg said. “So surreal, so exciting. … It feels really, really good that we get to see the fruits of our labors.”

Good enough to earn the Cougars a top-two seed?

“Just let the guys at the table make the decision, I guess,” said Eschenberg, husband of BYU women’s volleyball all-WCC player Kennedy Eschenberg. “I feel like we’ve done our part.”

Coaches rarely compare championships, or list one above the other, but Olmstead went there Saturday, calling this title “the biggest one for me, personally.”

Why?

The Cougars last won it in 2018; Of course, there was no tournament last year due to the pandemic hitting shortly after the No. 2 Cougars split on the road at No. 1 Hawaii.

“Just because of a culmination of a few things that are our things that we will hold on to (and not divulge),” Olmstead said.