PROVO — Although they never really came out and said it publicly, everyone associated closely with the BYU men’s volleyball program knew it was national championship or bust for the Cougars this season.

Well, the Cougars busted.

They were totally outclassed Saturday night in the national championship game at the sparkling new Covelli Center on the campus of Ohio State University, losing 3-0 and by a total of 19 points to No. 1-ranked Hawaii.

There was just one pot at the end of the rainbow in 2021 after COVID-19 ended the 2020 season prematurely and sent the teams on a collision course, and the Rainbow Warriors happily snatched it up, leaving No. 2 BYU empty-handed in a championship match once again.

“This season was definitely different, like Shawn (Olmstead) said. It wasn’t your normal season at all. But I wouldn’t trade this experience for any amount of money, any amount of anything. Of the opportunities I had after my season last year, I wouldn’t trade any of that for what we got this year with the guys, and the memories, and kinda that brotherhood we built.” — BYU setter Wil Stanley.

“Obviously, I wish I could have given them a gold trophy,” star BYU outside hitter Gabi Garcia Fernandez said, speaking of his family’s visit from Puerto Rico, but in a way referring to all of Cougar Nation. “But hey, Rebecca (his mother) has to deal with the silver one this (time).”

In one of the craziest stats in recent memory, one of the most dominant programs in the sport the past decade has lost 12 straight sets in national title clashes, falling 3-0 to UC Irvine, 3-0 to Ohio State twice and 3-0 to Hawaii, which was seemingly a step ahead of BYU at every turn Saturday night in a match televised nationally by ESPNU.

Hawaii seemed like the more prepared team, even after BYU coach Shawn Olmstead and several players said before the match the Cougars (20-4) had spent a lot of time preparing for the islanders all season.

To a man, the Cougars said the NCAA championship-ending collapse shouldn’t diminish an otherwise outstanding season. It was only the second time BYU has been swept this season.

But four pastings in four title matches isn’t just a coincidence. It is a trend, especially considering BYU had outstanding teams all four of those years and but couldn’t show it when it mattered most.

Looking back at the 2021 season, perhaps fans should have saw this coming. Trouble was, BYU didn’t play a Big West opponent all year — due to the pandemic — to get an idea of how it would stack up.

Grand Canyon got the Cougars 3-0 in Phoenix on Feb. 25, but the Cougars returned the favor the next night. The other losses were to UCLA, both by 3-1 counts, at the beginning of the season in Provo and end of the regular season in Los Angeles.

Asked to sum up the season, senior setter Wil Stanley said he could do it in one word.

“It was unforgettable,” he said.

With a forgettable ending, unfortunately.

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Olmstead said it was the toughest year of his coaching career “for a handful of reasons that are unseen.” He also said it was “probably the most rewarding” year of his career as well.

He did not elaborate much in the fog of Saturday night’s post-match virtual news conference, but clearly the coach realized he may never have a team as talented and experienced as this one. It could be a while before BYU has as good of a chance of winning a “natty,” as the kids like to call it, as it did with this collection of players from around the globe.

That’s why the loss was so devastating for BYU, which hasn’t won a national men’s volleyball title since 2004 and dropped to 3-5 in championship matches. 

In a cruel twist, the last three championship matches — the two losses to OSU and the one to Hawaii — all followed the same theme: the Cougars were overwhelmed by their opponent’s service game.

Olmstead called it “uncharacteristic” and said libero Mitchel Worthington simply had a “rough night.” It was a lot more than that, though. For instance, the Cougars’ own serving game was lackluster, and they committed enough net violations and mishits to fill a dozen sets, including a time that a simple bump from Garcia Fernandez went harmlessly into the net.

Hawaii exploited BYU’s weaknesses time and again, just as the Buckeyes did in 2016 at Penn State and in 2017 on their home court in Columbus. There were also a lot of mental breakdowns — Olmstead suggested the Cougars were “rattled” — which is surprising considering the players and team works a lot with Dr. Craig Manning, the school’s mental strength coach.

“That is sports, and athletics, and sometimes those things fall that way,” Olmstead said.

Seven seniors and/or graduate students are moving on, most notably Garcia Fernandez, middle-blocker Felipe de Brito Ferreira and three guys who could have started professional careers last year when the pandemic hit but opted to return and chase that elusive gold trophy: Stanley, middle blocker Miki Jauhiainen and outside hitter Zach Eschenberg. The other seniors are reserves Zach Hendrickson and Cyrus Fa’alogo.

“This season was definitely different, like Shawn said. It wasn’t your normal season at all,” Stanley said, as Garcia Fernandez nodded in agreement. “But I wouldn’t trade this experience for any amount of money, any amount of anything. Of the opportunities I had after my season last year, I wouldn’t trade any of that for what we got this year with the guys, and the memories, and kinda that brotherhood we built.

“And we just strengthened it over and over again. This experience, everything that happened, being here, playing with each other again, it is definitely something I will never forget.”

Olmstead said he couldn’t adequately express what it meant to him and the program to have the three graduates return, but now a major rebuilding project begins. Stanley and Garcia Fernandez were generational-type players. Had the 2020 season not been halted early, Garcia Fernandez would easily have surpassed several school records.

Eschenberg, Jauhiainen and de Brito Ferreira were mostly rock-solid the past four or five years, with Eschenberg especially improving to the point where he could make some money playing professionally overseas, if he wants to.

“Yeah, the guys know. They know. They know what I feel about them. They know how I feel and I love this group, and this one for sure is extra, extra tough because of the group and the dynamics and what we felt with these guys from start to finish of this year,” Olmstead said, getting a bit choked up.

“They mean the world to me,” he continued. “Like I have said over these last few weeks that we have had all this media stuff with the MPSF tournament and the NCAA Tournament: each team is special and unique, and this group of guys will rank at the top of my list, and I am just appreciative that they have given us a chance to be their coaches and put some faith and trust in us and in each other.”

What’s next?

The cupboard isn’t completely bare. Italian outside hitter Davide Gardini returns, and the team is mostly his now, after laboring in Garcia Fernandez’s shadow the past few years. Worthington will also be a senior with a lot of experience under his belt.

Beyond those two, the only other players who got much playing time to speak of were outside hitter Teilon-Jonathan Tufuga, outside hitter Jon Stanley (Wil’s brother) and setter Zeo Meyer.

BYU men’s volleyball

Key losses: MB Felipe de Brito Ferreira, OH Zach Eschenberg, OH Cyrus Fa’alogo, OH Gabi Garcia Fernandez, L Zach Hendrickson, S Wil Stanley, MB Miki Jauhiainen

Key returners: OH Davide Gardini, L Mitchel Worthington, OH Teilon-Jonathan Tufuga, OH Jon Stanley, S Zeo Meyer