COLUMBUS, Ohio — There was a time when BYU outside hitter Zach Eschenberg, a fifth-year graduate player, was afraid of head men’s volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead.

“Coming in as a freshman, I was definitely super intimidated by him,” Eschenberg said Wednesday in a news conference previewing the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championships. “I didn’t feel super comfortable talking to him a whole lot.”

2021 NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championships


Thursday’s semifinal matches


No. 1 Hawaii vs. No. 4 UC Santa Barbara, 3 p.m. MDT


No. 2 BYU vs. No. 3 Lewis, 6 p.m. MDT


Thursday’s semifinals will be livestreamed at NCAA.com


Saturday’s championship match


Semifinal winners, 6 p.m. MDT


Saturday’s championship match will air on ESPNU


Now, Eschenberg and his teammates — especially fellow graduate students Miki Jauhiainen and Wil Stanley, consider the youthful-looking Olmstead not only an outstanding coach and mentor, but a close friend. He’s a big reason why those three returned to the team this season after COVID-19 wrecked the 2020 campaign when the Cougars seemed on the verge of winning their first national title since 2004.

“I think Shawn has done a really nice job of making himself open to guys, making himself approachable as a coach and as a friend,” said Eschenberg, who first joined the program in 2017, Olmstead’s second season as BYU’s men’s coach. 

“I think he has done a ton better in these last couple of years of giving us a lot of really good, constructive feedback on and off the court,” Eschenberg continued. “And it has been really fun to see him kinda develop. And heck, now he is running 200 miles for fun every now and then (as part of a fitness quest). So it is really, really fun to have grown with Shawn over these past few years.”

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Between the 2004 national championship and the time Olmstead replaced Chris McGown before the 2016 season, a span of 11 seasons, BYU got to the NCAA Tournament just twice, and won only one MPSF championship. He was named MPSF coach of the year for the fourth time in his six seasons last week after guiding the Cougars to their fourth conference tournament title in six seasons the previous week.

“Coming in as a freshman, I was definitely super intimidated by him. I didn’t feel super comfortable talking to him a whole lot.” — BYU outside hitter Zach Eschenberg on coach Shawn Olmstead

Olmstead got the Cougars to the national championship matches in 2016 and 2017, losing to Ohio State in the finals both years. He has gradually adopted a more personal approach to his coaching, several players said, after taking more of a no-nonsense tact his first few seasons after moving over from coaching the BYU women’s team to the national championship match in the fall of 2014.

“Shawn is like my dad,” MPSF Player of the Year Gabi Garcia Fernandez told the Daily Universe. “He is always giving me life lessons and trying to make me a better person every day. He doesn’t forget about us; he’s not that type of coach. He cares about all 21 or 22 players on the team.”

Olmstead has taken on the mantra of being a “players’ coach” because he was once a standout player — at BYU.

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The native of Carpinteria, California, (near Santa Barbara) served a church mission in Argentina after high school, then played libero on BYU’s national championship teams in 2001 and 2004 and was a junior on the 2003 team that lost to Lewis, 3-2, in the final match. Lewis’ title was later vacated by the NCAA infractions committee.

Coincidentally, the No. 2 seeded Cougars will meet No. 3 seed Lewis in the second semifinal Thursday at 6 p.m. MDT at the Covelli Center on the campus of Ohio State in a match that will be streamed live on the NCAA.com website. Top-seeded Hawaii will face No. 4 seed UC Santa Barbara in the first semifinal (3 p.m. MDT).

Lewis (21-2), which is in Romeoville, Illinois, and plays in the MIVA conference, swept No. 6 seed Penn State (25-23, 27-25, 25-20) Tuesday night. BYU leads the all-time series with the Flyers, 18-2.

The Cougars haven’t played since April 24, nearly two weeks ago, but setter Stanley said he liked the long layoff because it gave BYU “time to work on some things” and fine-tune its powerful offense, led by Garcia Fernandez, Eschenberg, Jauhiainen, Felipe de Brito Ferreira and Davide Gardini. Olmstead said he’s been in both positions entering the Final Four, and sees positives and negatives to both. 

“For the most part, we are going to continue to play our game, which we believe is going to be important to us,” Olmstead said. “You have gotten to this stage, so you have got to be aggressive everywhere. We are going to do our best to be properly aggressive, and we will find that place. I am pretty confident in the guys.”

And the guys are confident in their coach, who gathered them together after Tuesday’s practice and told them, once again, that he knows who they are as a team and is proud of them.

Who are they?

“These guys are a group of fine young men,” he said in Wednesday’s virtual news conference, after wishing his 16-year-old daughter, Regan, a happy birthday. “They are outstanding individuals. And yeah, as I get older, man, I get sappy. But maybe it is more about these relationships and this time together, each and every moment.

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“I believe at the core of it, they are a great group of young men with outstanding backgrounds and families that have supported them and put so much time and energy into each one of them. But they are becoming a pretty darn good volleyball team, too. So that is exciting.”

“I believe at the core of it, they are a great group of young men with outstanding backgrounds and families that have supported them and put so much time and energy into each one of them. But they are becoming a pretty darn good volleyball team, too. So that is exciting.” — Shawn Olmstead

The coach often refers to his playing days nearly two decades ago, and what kind of culture it takes to succeed at a national level, as BYU has done since he led the women’s team to that 2014 national championship. His sister, Heather Olmstead, is now the women’s coach at BYU and has continued that winning legacy.

“It is something special, being able to have Shawn as a coach,” Eschenberg said. “He definitely talks about those years when he won not one, but two, national championships. He talks about what made that team great, and really tries to implement that into our culture. … I love hearing about ‘back in the day.’ It is lot of fun to hear about those times and when he was able to go out and win those national championships, and I think that is definitely related a lot to how he has helped us be successful.”

And become less fearful of the fiery coach.

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