It was 1991 the last time BYU men’s volleyball was not among the nationally ranked; George H.W. Bush was in White House, Michael Jordan was en route to winning his first NBA championship, and “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” by Bryan Adams wound up topping the song charts.

That all changed last week when BYU fell out of the national rankings for the first time in over 30 years. The 1991 Cougars, after losing 14 consecutive matches to start that season, finished the year with a 2-25 record.

Much like the last BYU squad to find its name missing among the nation’s best, this year’s iteration has faced many challenges. They currently sit at 7-11, having just ended a losing streak of nine matches last weekend with wins over Concordia.

However, BYU’s abnormal absence on the national stage has not discouraged the Cougars. 

“Rankings don’t matter right now,” sophomore setter Bartosz Sławiński said. “The most important thing is how we play and how we perform. If we are getting better, we are on the right course. So rankings don’t matter.”

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BYU turned things for the better following its difficult 1991 season. Since that time, the Cougars have finished with double-digit win totals every year but one, earned 10 Final Four bids, won three national titles, and remained nationally ranked every week — that is until March 7 of this year.

Still, the season has not sunk to the level of frustration the program faced in its early going. It has, however, been one of BYU’s more disappointing seasons since the school began playing men’s volleyball in 1990.

“It’s tough to lose,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “You never want to lose. That’s why we’re competing in athletics. You compete to win. You want to win. But we always say, ‘You either win or you’re going to learn something about yourself.’”

The Cougars have had many opportunities to learn about themselves as the losses mounted this season.

Through the defeats, Olmstead has kept a positive approach.

“You really analyze things a little bit more when you’ve had those losses or tough moments. A lot of times you don’t get those (moments) when things are just going the right way and clicking.”

Despite their best efforts, the Cougars have faced their share of tough moments, finding themselves on the wrong end of the school’s normally proud history multiple times.

Among them, this year’s team was ...

• First to lose to UC San Diego. The Tritons added insult to injury, taking care of business two nights in a row.

• First to drop a match in Smith Fieldhouse to Grand Canyon. It too happened on successive nights.

• First since 2011 to end the regular season without a victory over USC, winning just one set in two losses to the Trojans.

• First since 1996 to fall to Ball State, snapping the Cougars’ 10-match winning streak over the Cardinals.

Each setback has added up, giving BYU its most recent disappointment in the national rankings. But the Cougars still feel they can clean up their missteps.  

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“It’s always the little errors that are killing us right now,” freshman outside hitter Miks Ramanis said amid the Cougars’ nine-match losing streak. “We just have to get gritty and make sure we make the small plays count.”

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After coaching and playing on some of the best BYU teams of all time, Olmstead is in uncharted territory. Even so, he sees these setbacks as opportunities for his team to learn. “There is a different energy and a different excitement when you’re winning all the time as compared to really looking at the issues when you’re not winning.”

BYU expects to be better because of what the team has endured this season.

“A lot of times losing, you learn more about yourself,” Olmstead said, emphasizing the point. “You learn more about your team than you do in winning because you tend to dive deeper into what the issues are. Whereas when you win, you’re excited, you celebrate and sometimes you can just go on to the next day.”

The Cougars need only look into their past to see what it takes to turn adversity into growth; challenges into learning experiences; defeats into victories.

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