Why this NCAA men’s volleyball championship matters even more. Maybe twice as much
The Cougars and Rainbow Warriors have seemingly been on a collision course for two years, and finally get a chance to settle it on the volleyball court at Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Only one NCAA men’s college volleyball national championship trophy will be handed out late Saturday night at Covelli Center here on the Ohio State University campus, but don’t tell that to the No. 1 Hawaii Rainbow Warriors or the No. 2 BYU Cougars.
2021 NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship
Saturday’s championship match
At Covelli Center, Columbus, Ohio
No. 2 BYU vs. No. 1 Hawaii, 6 p.m. MDT
This battle of heavyweights for the NCAA crown is two years in the making — ever since the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to the 2020 season when the programs linked as closely as any two in the country appeared to be on a collision course for a coveted national championship.
Well, not much has changed since then. As Hawaii coach Charlie Ward said in Friday’s virtual news conference, “It has been pretty obvious that we have been the best teams for the past two years, so it is fitting that we are getting a chance to play again for the championship.”
“Tomorrow is going to be the most important day of my life. And it will live with me for the rest of my life, no matter the outcome. ... I think we are going to go into it with just complete heart. We know the entire Warrior Nation and the state of Hawaii is supporting us and I think we are really excited to go play and know that the state of Hawaii is behind us.” — Hawaii volleyball player Colton Cowell
In a way, two championships are on the line — 2020 and 2021 — and everyone knows it, even if the line next to 2020 in the record books will remain blank and players and coaches from both sides would not flat out say it in the hype Friday leading up to the clash of titans.
“Yeah, I think so,” said BYU senior outside hitter Felipe de Brito Ferreira, when asked if two titles are unofficially on the line. “Because with the whole pandemic thing last year, the championship was canceled and BYU and Hawaii were No. 1 and No. 2. That’s basically our position right now, and we are in position to finally close the deal.”
First serve is at 6 p.m. MDT and the match will be televised nationally by ESPNU.
“If you are involved in this sport, it doesn’t get any better than this,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said Friday afternoon, a day after the Cougars improved to 20-3 with a 3-1 win over MIVA champion Lewis in the semifinals. Hawaii (16-1) advanced with a relatively easier 3-0 win over Big West rival UC Santa Barbara.
“It has been a lot of hard work for two straight years, and now we finally get the opportunity of getting this final,” de Brito Ferreira said. “Hawaii is a great team. We are excited to play them. We can’t wait. Can’t wait. We have been preparing and we have been studying them, too, and I think it is going to be a blast.”
The Cougars lead the all-time series with Hawaii 28-11, which is why the Warriors consider the Cougars a rival, as they do in almost every sport after years of playing second fiddle to BYU, not only on the mainland but, at times, in their own state.
For these guys, it is personal. Consider this comment from UH senior outside hitter Colton Cowell, who is from Maui, Hawaii:
“Tomorrow is going to be the most important day of my life. And it will live with me for the rest of my life, no matter the outcome,” Cowell said. “… I think we are going to go into it with just complete heart. We know the entire Warrior Nation and the state of Hawaii is supporting us and I think we are really excited to go play and know that the state of Hawaii is behind us.”
Last year, on March 5 and 6, both teams were undefeated entering a midseason nonconference series in Honolulu. Playing perhaps their best match in school history, the second-ranked Cougars swept the first match 3-0 by scores of 25-20, 25-17 and 25-14 to humble the No. 1 Warriors on their home court in front of nearly 10,000 fans.
The next night, Hawaii won a five-set thriller, coming back from a 2-0 deficit and winning the fifth set, 19-17. But for the Warriors, it felt like slapping lipstick on a kalua pig. The message had been sent by BYU: It was the better team when the season was called off the next week.
In Provo, some BYU fans proclaimed the Cougars the unofficial national champions. That didn’t go over well in Manoa, for obvious reasons.
“It is very difficult to determine whether or not this championship will be worth two, given the circumstances of COVID-19,” Cowell said, speaking diplomatically, but with passion in his voice. “I think that was a very rough year for all programs. I feel that honestly in terms of just this championship, we are just remaining in the present moment and focusing on this year and the success we have had, and we are trying to continue it for one more night.”
But don’t be fooled. Whichever team wins Saturday night — and it is a tossup, according to most experts — will surely thrust two fingers, perhaps on opposite hands — to signify that it should be regarded as the best the past two years, and not just in 2021.
Tale of the tape
Records: BYU 20-3, Hawaii 16-1
Hitting: BYU .349, Hawaii .359
Opponent hitting: BYU .225, Hawaii .231
Blocks per set: BYU 2.77, Hawaii 2.77
Aces per set: BYU 1.76, Hawaii 1.50
Record in national championship matches: BYU 3-4, Hawaii 1-2
“We are proud of our performance this year,” said Cowell, who competed against BYU setter Wil Stanley, from Honolulu, as a youngster. “We think BYU is a really good team and I think deep down we were aware that when it came down to these final matches there was a high likelihood that we would end up playing them, and I think we are really excited to test ourselves against them once more.”
For Stanley, the match means a lot more, and not just because he will be facing his hometown team and the program he grew up watching since he was 2 or 3 years old, he said Friday. Stanley, middle blocker Miki Jauhiainen and outside hitter Zach Eschenberg chose to return for an extra year granted by the NCAA when the 2020 season was canceled just so they could chase BYU’s fourth national title.
“This one is special in so many different ways,” said Stanley, whose younger brother Jon Stanley is also on the team as an outside hitter and libero and who was instrumental late in the win over Lewis.
The Cougars are 3-4 in national championship matches, having won titles in 1999, 2001 and 2004, the latter with Olmstead playing a key role under coach Tom Peterson. They lost in the 2003, 2013, 2016 and 2017 championship matches, the last two under Olmstead against Ohio State here in Columbus, but at a different venue.
“You play the sport to be in these situations,” Olmstead said. “Now we have to make the most of it.”
That won’t be easy. Hawaii features some “incredible players,” Olmstead said, including AVCA Player of the Year Rado Parapunov, a lefty who averages 4.41 kills per set, and senior middle blocker/opposite Patrick Gasman, who has a .500 hitting percentage and averages 1.26 blocks per set.
For BYU, MPSF Player of the Year Gabi Garcia Fernandez, the AVCA Player of the Year last year, needs just two aces to become the school’s all-time ace leader. The Puerto Rican has 181; Taylor Sander had 182 from 2011-14.
Heavyweight battle. Clash of titans. The Super Bowl of college volleyball. Call it what you will. Bottom line is that it represents a huge moment in the histories of both programs. Hawaii won the championship in 2002, but the title was stripped due to NCAA sanctions.
Both programs believe they are the best, two years running. But only one will have the right to say that Saturday night.
“I believe our best is good enough, because I believe our best is the best,” Olmstead said.