May 8, 2021, was a day that had been two years in the making for the BYU men’s volleyball team. It began with opportunity but ended in disappointment as the Cougars came away just shy of another national title. 

Their quest to rectify a near flawless 2020 season, a season stripped from them by COVID-19, had fallen one victory shy of an NCAA championship in an eerily familiar fashion — a loss to Hawaii — the same Hawaii team that handed the Cougars their first and only loss of the 2020 virus-halted season. The disappointing NCAA final marked the Cougars’ third second-place finish in the last six years.

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After nearly seven months, the start of 2022 offered new beginnings for BYU as it ushered in a new season with a slew of fresh faces. The Cougars opened the year on the road with two matches against Penn State.

But again, things did not go as planned.

BYU’s January journey to Pennsylvania was rocky at best, as COVID-19 kept four Cougars from making the trip that saw BYU fall to the Nittany Lions in two straight sweeps. It marked just the second time the Cougars had been swept in two straight regular-season matches since head coach Shawn Olmstead took over the program in 2016.

Still, Olmstead’s squad has remained resilient in 2022 despite its difficult beginning. The seventh-year head coach feels his team has learned from its early defeats.

“There’s value in setbacks. There’s value in those losses if we are willing to process them appropriately. I think we’ve shown that we did, because we’ve been better since those losses.” — BYU coach Shawn Olmstead

“There’s value in setbacks,” Olmstead said. “There’s value in those losses if we are willing to process them appropriately. I think we’ve shown that we did, because we’ve been better since those losses.”

BYU faced another setback last week when All-American Davide Gardini went down with an ankle injury.

“That’s a bummer in and of itself,” Olmstead said. “But again, it’s an opportunity for someone else to grow and us to learn our roster a little more; learn about our depth and see how we can handle that. We’ll see if he’s able to come back.”

BYU’s Davide Gardini celebrates as BYU defeats Pepperdine in the finals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championship at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Saturday, April 24, 2021. BYU won in straight sets. The All-American recently suffered an ankle injury. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

With or without Gardini, there are lots of opportunities for the Cougars to continue to grow. BYU’s 20-man roster has 15 underclassmen, giving Olmstead much less experience than he has been afforded over the last two years.

Even so, the Cougars’ coach is enthusiastic about his team’s youth.

“It’s not so much a negative, it’s actually a positive,” Olmstead said about the important experience his freshman-filled roster is gaining. “We’re looking at a lot of young guys that’re getting reps and so there are a lot of positives. But they’re going to go through growing moments and that’s what we’ve been seeing.

“So they’ll go through a little more ups and downs that veteran teams usually don’t go through, and we’re in the thick of that and experiencing that and enjoying the opportunity to get better and experience that together as a team.”

Through the first six matches of the season, BYU has been paced in multiple statistical categories by underclassmen. Sophomore setter Zeo Meyer has tallied an impressive 132 assists, while freshman outside hitter Miks Ramanis leads the team with 59 kills. Not to be outdone, sophomore middle blocker Gavin Julien has spearheaded the Cougar defense with 24 blocks on the year. 

At the moment, BYU is on an up — having won every match since those first two losses to Penn State. The Cougars, now riding a four-match win streak, have picked up a couple of victories each over UC Irvine and the University of Mount Olive.

A packed house watches the Cougars defeat UC Irvine on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo. | Brooklynn Jarvis, BYU Photo

“We had two guys that started the match against UC Irvine that were not even on the road trip with us in Penn State,” Olmstead said when asked about how quickly his team recovered from its first two losses. “It also was us finally being able to compete. Finally getting out of a practice arena where you sometimes get in the habit of feeling like, ‘We’re pretty good here, we’re pretty good there.’

“But then you see in competition, ‘Oh, maybe we’re not as good as we thought,” he continued. “We’ve got to be better in these things.’ Those are the improvements we did make to bounce back and be significantly more competitive.”

Another key to the Cougars’ win streak has been the always-advantageous Smith Fieldhouse. “We came back (from Penn State), and we’ve had some really nice matches here and got back on track,” Olmstead said. “We’ve been on a nice run. That does have to do with being at home.”

BYU will continue to have home-court advantage for its next four matches before hitting the road to finish up nonconference play. The Cougars hope to continue their upward trajectory in those contests before returning home for the start of MPSF play at the end of this month against Grand Canyon.