BYU walked off the Smith Fieldhouse floor Saturday, its regular season having come to a close moments earlier, with a greater recognition of what it will take to repeat as Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Volleyball Tournament champions this year and return to the NCAA postseason.
The Cougars hosted regular-season league champion and No. 1-ranked UCLA in two matches over the weekend, losing both contests and ending the season on a five-match skid.
“I think that’s the best team that we could play in this moment,” BYU senior outside hitter Davide Gardini said following one of the Cougars’ losses to the Bruins. “There’s a lot of good things for sure that we learned this weekend, and we’re going to bring them into next week and hopefully into two weeks from now.”
As the regular season ends, BYU finds itself in unfamiliar territory. When the Cougars left the gym Saturday, they were unranked, losers of seven home matches on the year, and the first BYU men’s volleyball team this century to finish a season with a losing record.
Still, the Cougars remain positive and focused, feeling that more wins are on the horizon.
“I would not say at all that there’s been any sort of disappointment (shown by the team),” BYU sophomore middle blocker Gavin Julien said. “I think we’re all really bought into this team and bought into what we can do, and we all believe in our ability to win.”
Despite the challenges this season has posed, BYU has a lot to play for. As the season progressed, the Cougars showed growth, development and a greater ability to compete with the nation’s elite, giving them hope that they might be able to do something special at the conference tournament starting Wednesday.
“I think we’ve been getting better every single day at practice,” Julien said. “Every day, every week, we’ve made some changes and we’re getting better.”
When asked what it’s going to take to win the MPSF Tournament, Julien said, “It all comes down to our side of the court and us just playing well together and just doing what we need to do and not being too worried about what’s going on, on the other side of the mat and just continuing to lift ourselves up.”
A postseason conference title would give the Cougars their second straight NCAA tournament bid, bolstering the confidence of a young BYU squad that has shown flashes of its potential. Without that title, the school would have to wait until 2023 to get back on the court.
BYU won the tournament a season ago, sweeping both Grand Canyon and then Pepperdine en route to an eighth conference tournament title. The Cougars were the top seed in 2021 but have their work cut out for them this time around as the sixth seed. That finish gives the school its lowest seeding since joining the MPSF.
“I think that there’s always room for improvement no matter what,” Julien said when asked if the Cougars need additional growth to win their league tournament. “It doesn’t matter whether or not we were undefeated or lost every match so far this season. I think there’s always more room for improvement. There’s always work that can and needs to be done. Even during the MPSF tournament whether or not we win it. There’s always work that can be done to get better.”
BYU hopes to be playing its best volleyball as its MPSF Tournament title defense begins this week. The school has proven it knows how to win in conference tournament matches, posting a 9-2 record under Shawn Olmstead in those contests.
The Cougars will look to add to that impressive record this year when they again face Pepperdine, this time in their first match of the tournament.
BYU played its final two March matches in Malibu against the then-No. 7 ranked Waves. The Cougars last win came on that trip when they took down their hosts 3-2 in the first match. Pepperdine got its revenge the next night, however, defeating BYU with a sweep.
The Cougars and the Waves will square off in a rubber match starting Wednesday in Los Angeles at 6 p.m. MDT.