Needing just one more point to become 2021 MPSF men’s volleyball champions, BYU’s Jon Stanley stepped to the service line. His serve was received by a pesky Pepperdine squad that was doing everything it could to keep its dream of winning a second straight MPSF tournament alive. The Waves’ hopes were squelched when 6-foot-9 outside hitter Davide Gardini rose up to block Pepperdine’s attack and secure a 3-0 sweep.
The previous month, the Cougars had picked up their first road win over Pepperdine in three years. Now, BYU swept the Waves for the third time on the season — this time for the conference tournament title.
After winning the MPSF regular season crown and earning the league’s top seed in postseason play, BYU waltzed through the conference tournament picking up a victory over Grand Canyon before defeating Pepperdine to complete an MPSF championship trophy sweep.
A year later, Stanley and Gardini remain on a Cougar roster that has seen a revolving rotation of new faces since that victorious evening in Provo in 2021.
With so much change, BYU coach Shawn Olmstead is not sure how this year’s team will measure up against squads of the past.
“(We) don’t have enough experience to be able to compare them,” he said. “Right now, it’s probably impossible to compare teams, just because of what we know in terms of experience.”
BYU has been gaining experience match by match as it prepares to defend its conference title starting Friday at the Smith Fieldhouse.
The Cougars face an uphill climb, limping into league play on the heels of five straight setbacks. With five wins and seven losses, BYU has more defeats through the first 12 matches than it’s had since 1991 when the Cougars finished with a 2-25 record.
Gardini, an experienced veteran, is focused on the positives that have come through those losses.
“It’s going to be super, super important for us to be good at home when we have an opportunity to be here against those conference teams.” — BYU men’s volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead
“When you lose there is always something to learn,” he said. “Nonconference gives you a record, but we don’t really care about the record. It’s just prepared us for the conference. There’s a lot of good things we can learn. … I’m not too worried. A lot of people are going to talk about the record and all that. I don’t really care. I think we’re a good team.”
As usual, it’s going to take a good team to win the MPSF this year. The conference boasts six ranked teams, including BYU, the other five ranking ahead of the Cougars.
“That’s what you want,” Olmstead says of the MPSF’s national recognition. “You want your conference to be strong. That only adds to the strength of your schedule, the strength of your competition, the RPI — all those things that go into consideration. So it’s a good thing.”
BYU has the benefit of playing in one of the most home-friendly, visitor-hostile volleyball arenas in the country. Olmstead hopes to use the Smith Fieldhouse to his advantage during league play.
“It’s going to be super, super important for us to be good at home when we have an opportunity to be here against those conference teams,” he said.
BYU begins conference play Friday and Saturday in the Smith Fieldhouse against Grand Canyon. The Cougars will be looking to snap their five-match losing streak along with a rare three-match home losing streak when the Antelopes visit Provo.
BYU will then play six of its next eight matches on the road, with a pair of contests each against USC, Concordia, Pepperdine and Stanford. Only the Eagles will travel to Provo over that stretch. The Cougars will round out their regular-season schedule with two home matches against UCLA.
Olmstead knows the challenges of playing in a strong league. When asked what this version of Cougars needs to do to win the MPSF, the seventh-year men’s volleyball coach said, “It’s going to take a lot of growth, a lot of experience, a lot of hard work.”
The Cougars will lean heavily on experienced players like Gardini and Stanley to show them the work and growth it takes to win MPSF titles. They were on the court when BYU did it a season ago.