Take one glance at his stats and profile, and it is obvious what outside hitter Zach Eschenberg brings to the No. 2-ranked BYU men’s volleyball team: experience, leadership, powerful serves, big blocks and accurate spikes.
But after the Cougars swept Grand Canyon in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinals on April 23 in Provo, MPSF Player of the Year Gabi Garcia Fernandez provided another description of the graduate student from Newbury Park, California, that best illustrates what Eschenberg means to BYU.
“He just brings happiness,” Garcia Fernandez said. “We are very passionate players, but we don’t bring that much emotion when it comes to being happy and all that. And Zach is that. Zach brings happiness, good vibes. He keeps the team together. You look at him and you can’t help but not smile. The guy is super clutch. We love that guy.”
Garcia Fernandez, Eschenberg and other veterans will lead the second-seeded Cougars (19-3) into the NCAA Division I Men’s Volleyball Championships later this week in Columbus, Ohio.
BYU, which received a double-bye after sweeping Pepperdine on April 24 to win the MPSF championship, will meet the winner of Tuesday night’s quarterfinal match between No. 3 Lewis and No. 6 Penn State on Thursday night at 6 p.m. MDT at the Covelli Center on the campus of Ohio State University.
“We are a diverse team, with (players from) Puerto Rico, Finland, Brazil, Italy,” Garcia Fernandez said. “Zach is the hardest worker of us all. He works his butt off. Mad respect for that guy.”
Eschenberg, 6-foot-6, was once referred to by coach Shawn Olmstead as the “forgotten man” on a team loaded with stars such as opposite hitter Garcia Fernandez, outside hitter Davide Gardini, setter Wil Stanley and middle blockers Miki Jauhiainen and Felipe de Brito Ferreira, but that label no longer applies.
Eschenberg has emerged as a superstar the past two seasons, after playing in only three matches his freshman year way back in 2017 and appearing in only 32 sets and making just five starts his first three years in Provo. Eschenberg, who is married to BYU women’s volleyball All-American Kennedy Redding Eschenberg, was a senior last year, but when COVID-19 ended the Cougars’ season in March before they could play in any postseason tournaments, Zach was given the opportunity to return for a fifth year, and he took it.
“He has really made the most of it,” Kennedy Eschenberg said last month. “I am so proud of him.”
Kennedy Eschenberg will return for her fifth season this fall, while Zach will complete his graduate degree and then move on to dental school.
Monday, five BYU men’s volleyball players earned 2021 AVCA All-America honors, with Garcia Fernandez, Gardini and Stanley repeating as First Team All-Americans and Eschenberg and de Brito Ferreira getting honorable mention nods.
It was a repeat honorable mention selection for Eschenberg, who has a .324 hitting percentage with 177 kills through 21 matches.
“Zach is just a phenomenal person,” Olmstead told the Deseret News in February. “I would put money on him (to succeed) in life. He has always been willing to put the team’s goals in front of his own goals, and do whatever the coaches need. It’s a remarkable story of perseverance.”
After Eschenberg had a match-high 13 kills in the 3-0 win over Pepperdine, which is also in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals Tuesday, he appeared in the postmatch news conference and said he couldn’t take all the credit for shaking off the “forgotten man” tag.
“I have had a lot of help from all of my coaches, from Shawn, Devin (Young) and Micah (Naone), from my teammates,” he said. “One of the biggest things was just feeling like they believed in me. And for me, that was huge.”
As for Garcia Fernandez’s take that he brings joy to the team, Eschenberg said he chose that role as a sophomore and junior in years two and three when he was more of a reserve player than he is now.
“Definitely in my first couple of years whenever I came in I felt like I had a huge responsibility to just help the team, but I was also in the role of kinda being a good energy guy and help the guys have fun,” he said. “That is just kind of the player I have always been. I feel like volleyball is a lot more fun when you and your teammates are smiling and having fun and that’s kinda just what helped me in high school and club as well, just bringing it out when I can.”
Eschenberg played basketball and volleyball growing up in Southern California and as a sophomore at Newbury Park High and dreamed of playing basketball for BYU, which is where his parents — Michael and Amy — met and got married.
But when basketball coaches asked him to focus on basketball only, he abruptly gave up that sport and chose volleyball year-round.
After a mission to Lima, Peru, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he returned to BYU in 2016 and started the long journey that he hopes will culminate Saturday night with a national championship.
“It feels awesome, just so surreal and so exciting,” he said. “Every guy on our team has worked so hard for this moment and I feel like we have put in a lot of time, so it feels really, really good that we get to see the fruits of our labors and get to continue on in the NCAA Tournament right now.”
2021 NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championships
At Covelli Center, Columbus, Ohio
No. 4 UC Santa Barbara vs. No. 5 Pepperdine, 3 p.m MDT
No. 3 Lewis vs. No. 6 Penn State, 6 p.m. MDT
No. 1 Hawaii vs. UC Santa Barbara-Pepperdine winner, 3 p.m. MDT
No. 2 BYU vs. Lewis-Penn State winner, 6 p.m. MDT (Live-streamed at NCAA.com)
Saturday’s championship atch
Semifinal winners, 6 p.m. MDT (ESPNU)