Few players remain on the BYU men’s volleyball team that came one match shy of winning the school’s fourth national championship a season ago. Even fewer remain that saw significant playing time last year.
With over half of BYU’s roster comprised of freshmen, 11 in all, coupled with four sophomores to start the season, the Cougars reloaded with an abundance of inexperienced youth.
BYU coach Shawn Olmstead feels his team’s growth will be tied to its experience. “Experience in athletics is the master teacher,” he said. “We talk about that all the time. … Experience is the one that teaches everything.”
BYU’s youth and lack of experience has been on full display during its roller coaster season.
Critics might point to the school’s poor showing in two sweeps at Penn State to start the season. Or possibly the Cougars crumpling against UC San Diego twice; the first match with a two-set lead and the second with a 2-1 advantage. Or maybe the Cougars’ failure to close out Grand Canyon with a match point left languishing in the final set Saturday. Doubters might think a losing streak of seven matches has doomed BYU’s season.
But the Cougars remain positive and resolute, continuing to progress week by week.
“Win or defeat we’re going to learn from it and we’re going to grow and we’re just going to become a better team,” redshirt freshman Miks Ramanis said. “In the end, (come) April, you’ll see us as a new team.”
Ramanis and the younger Cougars are trying to learn from their more experienced teammates. “The older guys are consistent. They see the game a little bit better.”
BYU has sought to improve all year long, learning from each match. The Cougars countered their humiliating defeats at Penn State with a sweep of their own over UC Irvine soon thereafter. BYU might have been unable to close out UCSD or GCU, but the Cougars would not go away after falling in their first two sets to Ball State in early February. BYU ultimately came back to win that match in five sets. As for the Cougars’ current losing streak, it comes on the heels of five consecutive victories.
Against Ball State, BYU’s inexperience and youth was encapsulated as the Cougars inexplicably dropped the first set after losing a 22-13 lead. Following another defeat in the second set, the youthful BYU squad showed flashes of its potential, rattling off a trio of wins in the final three sets to win the match.
A key player who stepped up for the Cougars that night was sophomore Kupono Browne. “Ultimately, I like to think we like to keep things interesting,” he said after BYU defeated Ball State.
The Cougars have definitely kept things interesting, giving their coach some gray hairs in the process. “It’s going to age me for sure, just this season,” Olmstead said following the Cougars’ comeback win. “But that’s OK.”
Many of BYU’s young athletes have made big contributions all season long. Sophomore Gavin Julien is tied for the most sets played this season and leads the team in blocks. Additionally, Ramanis is second on the team in kills, digs, points and service aces.
Olmstead is encouraged by what he sees from his young team.
“As a coach, there’s a ton of excitement about the young guys getting the opportunities they’re getting,” he said. “We’ve had multiple times where there are freshmen or sophomores getting a ton of reps. So there’s actually a lot of excitement in that sense. There’s a lot of energy in terms of watching those young guys perform, and so it’s pretty exciting.”
BYU’s seventh-year coach will continue to do everything he can to get the best out of his young team as they work to reach their potential.
“I always, as a coach, believe there’s more. I always believe there’s more from each player, from each practice,” he said. “So it’s totally fair for me to tell these guys we don’t know our full potential yet and thus we get to play these matches; we get to be in these moments and these opportunities and we get to learn as we go.”
Olmstead and BYU hope they can take advantage of the opportunities ahead, helping a young Cougars roster grow into something great.