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Lessons learned: After challenging 2022 campaign, BYU volleyball off to strong start

The Cougars take an unblemished 4-0 record on the road this week to face No. 6 UC Irvine

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BYU players huddle after a big point against Fairleigh Dickinson last weekend in Provo.

BYU players huddle after a big point against Fairleigh Dickinson last weekend in Provo. Next up for the Cougars are a pair of matches at No. 6 UC Irvine this week.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

Though many of the faces remain from a challenging 2022 BYU men’s volleyball season, the Cougars feel much has changed for the program over the last year. 

After a season that saw 15 underclassmen on the Cougars roster, the Cougars have much more experience in 2023.

“We’re going to need a collective effort to accomplish what we want to accomplish because we do have a more capable group than we did last year.” — BYU coach Shawn Olmstead

“We knew we were going to bring most of those guys back,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “So you knew they would be better experienced for going through (a difficult year).” 

Olmstead said his players have learned from the mistakes they made a season ago. “We’ve seen these guys … make better decisions than they would have last year in that same situation,” he said of his 4-0 squad. 

One key player from a season ago that did not remain part of the Cougars’ program, however, is graduating outside hitter Davide Gardini. At the end of last season, Olmstead admitted it would be extremely difficult to make up for the void left by Gardini’s departure. 

Still, the BYU coach said players like junior outside hitter Kupono Browne have stepped up to fill that role for the Cougars. 

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BYU’s Kupono Browne spikes the ball past Concordia’s Jonathan Carlson during a match in the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, March 11, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“He’s taken on almost twice the amount of swings as last year,” Olmstead said of Browne. “He’s more offensive in transition. (In) tough situations, we give the ball to Kupono.”

Another important addition to BYU’s roster is Heath Hughes, who has helped fill a leadership role. The senior setter transferred to Provo from Grand Canyon and has made an instant impact for the Cougars. 

“He’s fit right in; done a really good job,” Hughes’ coach said of the graduate transfer’s transition to BYU. “(He) acclimated to our team immediately. (He’s) really good; gets on great with the guys.” 

Ultimately, Olmstead is focused on getting a complete team effort from all his players.

“We’re going to need a collective effort to accomplish what we want to accomplish because we do have a more capable group than we did last year,” he said. “We can bring in guys. We can put other guys in. So we’re going to have to maximize the real value of what … a team (is).”

The Cougars will only have each other when they begin conference play in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation with six consecutive matches on the road. They follow up that difficult stretch with eight straight matches at home to end the year.

After finishing last season with six losses in a row, eight home matches at the Smith Fieldhouse should give BYU a great opportunity to finish 2023 strong.

Last year’s rough ending had an effect on the way the Cougars were viewed entering the season. The school started unranked in the preseason AVCA poll, marking the first time BYU has begun a season on the outside looking in, but that didn’t bother Olmstead. 

When asked if being unranked gave him and his team added motivation he said, “As a coach, I can answer you sincerely and say no. What matters is where we’re at at the end of this whole thing.”

So far, this year, the Cougars are on track to prove they belong among the nation’s elite, finding themselves ranked at No. 12 entering the week.   

“Those first polls are so really just unpredictable and many times they’re based off last year,” Olmstead said. “So I think they ranked us perfectly fine, because we did not have a good year last year. So I wouldn’t expect otherwise.”    

BYU has started 2023 on a good note, winning its first four matches, all at the Smith Fieldhouse. The Cougars’ biggest victory came over Lewis, currently ranked No 15.

“After the first weekend, with Lewis and McKendree, … we were really, really, happy,” Olmstead said. “(We) came out and had a big win against Lewis. That was a really great win.”

From there, the Cougars had a week off before handling business in its two most recent matches, earning a pair of sweeps over Fairleigh Dickinson.

BYU will look to keep its streak alive and remain unbeaten when it plays its first road matches of the season at No. 6 UC Irvine this week. The Cougars played the Anteaters twice in 2022, winning both matches in Provo. The Cougars will be hoping for a similar result when it faces its former MPSF foe beginning Wednesday at 8 p.m. MST on ESPN+. 

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BYU players catch their breath during match against Fairleigh Dickinson last weekend in Provo. The Cougars won both matches to improve to 4-0 on the season.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU