BYU no stranger to facing No. 1-ranked teams; it will get another crack at one Friday
Top-ranked UCLA invades Smith Fieldhouse this weekend for a pair of matches against the young Cougars
Since Shawn Olmstead took over as coach of the BYU men’s volleyball program, the Cougars have faced a No. 1-ranked team every year but one. The Cougars will again get that opportunity Friday and Saturday when they welcome UCLA to the Smith Fieldhouse for a pair of matches against the top-ranked Bruins.
“I think it’ll be an amazing experience,” BYU sophomore middle blocker Gavin Julien said about playing UCLA in Provo this weekend after a month of matches away from home. “I can’t wait. I love playing in the Smith Fieldhouse, no matter who we play. I’m just really, really excited to be out there again.”
The Cougars will have their work cut out for them, playing against a UCLA squad that has held the top spot in the national rankings for eight straight weeks and has only lost three sets in its last seven matches.
“I think it’ll take everything on our side of the court,” Julien said about what it will take to topple the Bruins. “If we play well together and we do what needs to be done we can beat anybody in the country. That’s what it’s going to take. We’re just going to have to play well together.”
UCLA coach John Speraw holds the Cougars in high regard and knows that a hostile environment awaits his squad in Provo.
“I have many friends that are there and an incredible amount of respect for what BYU has built with their men’s volleyball program,” he said. “(Playing in the Smith Fieldhouse) is something that I think we can all look to as a special experience for our student-athletes and a challenge for our team to go get wins in a really difficult place to compete.”
Nine of BYU’s 11 opponents this season are currently ranked. Against those teams, the Cougars have posted a 4-14 record.
BYU won two straight matches at home over now-No. 14 UC Irvine. The Cougars needed five sets to take down the Anteaters the first night, but made quick work of their visitors in a sweep the next evening.
After dramatically reverse sweeping current No. 7-ranked Ball State on Feb. 4, BYU fell into a slump, losing nine straight matches — all to ranked opponents.
At the end of March, the Cougars won their fourth match against a ranked foe, splitting two matches with Pepperdine in Malibu. The Waves entered those contests ranked No. 7 but have since fallen to No. 8.
Those matches have prepared the Cougars for Goliath this weekend.
In past years, BYU has been impressive against top-ranked teams, posting a 26-24 all-time record in those matches. Under Olmstead, that record stands at 6-3. Olmstead’s first two wins over top-ranked squads came over UCLA in 2016.
The Smith Fieldhouse has proven to be kryptonite for the nation’s best since the turn of the century. The Cougars’ 12-5 home record against No. 1 teams since 2000 shows just how important BYU’s home court could be against UCLA Friday and Saturday.
“It’s really hard to do,” Speraw said when asked about preparing his players for a match in Provo. “It’s a tough place to get a win and when you do it’s well-earned.”
Some of BYU’s best-attended matches have been against UCLA. In 2001, the Cougars defeated the top-ranked Bruins in front of a Smith Fieldhouse record crowd of 6,119. BYU can again expect big crowds when No. 1 UCLA comes to town this weekend.
“Anytime we play a bigger-name school where people know who they are or someone who we’ve historically played a lot, the Smith Fieldhouse is always packed, it always fills up, and it’s always energetic,” Julien said. “Even though it’s like that every time, maybe it’s just a little bit more when it comes to teams like that. But it’s always an amazing environment.”
Friday will be the first time since 2017 that the country’s best will visit Provo. BYU split two matches at home with No. 1 Long Beach State that year.
Last year marked just the second season that an Olmstead-led Cougars squad did not take down the nation’s No. 1 — the only other time coming in 2019, when BYU did not get a shot at a top-ranked team.
The Cougars will be looking to buck that trend this weekend.