BYU was ranked No. 1 when the COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2020 season; Mountain Pacific Sports Federation champions, and national champion runner-up a year later.

However, not long after, and things have changed for the Cougars as they enter league play in 2023 with their work cut out for them. The school is coming off one of its more challenging seasons, and despite holding a No. 8 ranking, finds itself slated behind three MPSF counterparts. 

“We’ve got to be good at the end of April. That’s when it’s important, when we go into our conference tournament. So that’s what we’re building towards.” — BYU volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead

BYU wants to show that it has learned from its sixth-place MPSF finish in 2022, a finish that tied the Cougars’ all-time worst in conference play. That team earned a trio of league victories, all three coming one after the other. However, the school never had a winning record in conference matches, beginning its MPSF schedule with four losses in a row and ending it with six more. 

Last year’s shortcomings did not cause BYU coach Shawn OImstead to panic, his unique viewpoint of the program helping him keep things in proper perspective. “As a coach, you understand all the intricacies and the dynamics that go into teams,” he said. “Those kinds of seasons come and go.”

That sentiment did not seem to be shared by all, as the Cougars were picked in the MPSF preseason coaches poll to finish right where they ended last April: sixth place. 

Nobody seemed to remember that under Olmstead, BYU has always responded well following a subpar year. Excluding the pandemic-paralyzed 2020 campaign that saw BYU start league play 6-0, the Cougars have never seen back-to-back seasons pass without a conference title under the eight-year head coach’s watch.

Olmstead has guided the school to four first-place finishes beginning in 2016. Still, the focus is on this year and how the Cougars can be playing their best by the end of the season.

The BYU coach is hopeful the Cougars’ nonconference matches have prepared them for their MPSF schedule and perhaps a bounceback season. 

“We ideally set ourselves up for improvement; to get better, to get prepared for conference play,” Olmstead said. “That’s the most important (thing).”

The Cougars’ first six league matches will be played on the road, starting this week. Olmstead is eager to see how his team responds being away from Smith Fieldhouse for nearly a month.  

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“It’ll definitely challenge the guys,” he said. “So I’m looking forward to it. I like the challenge. I like the excitement that that brings. I like the opportunity that brings, because it’s going to put our backs against the wall more and we got to see which of the guys rise to that moment; that occasion; embrace that opportunity. And you’re going to see more leadership come out when you’re away from home.”

Still, Olmstead does not want to put too much stock into those six matches. Rather he simply hopes his team can use them to become better. 

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“I don’t think it will make or break (our season) at all,” he said of the initial matches of conference play. “We’ve got to be good at the end of April. That’s when it’s important, when we go into our conference tournament. So that’s what we’re building towards. So that won’t make or break anything.”

Following that tough stretch of road matches to begin their MPSF schedule, the Cougars will have a 20-day reprieve from league play, facing off against Ohio State in two nonconference matches at the Smith Fieldhouse before taking a bye week. BYU then resumes MPSF competition by playing six straight conference contests at home, giving the Cougars more than a month-long stay in Provo to end the regular season. 

“You’ve got to win at home (and) you’ve got to win on the road,” Olmstead said when asked about finishing the season with a deluge of matches at the Smith Fieldhouse. “That’s what great teams do. You are a little more comfortable and points seem to go your way a little more frequently at home. In the end, you can’t complain about being at home. It’s always a good thing.”

BYU will meet its first conference opponent this week when it begins its long MPSF road stretch, with a pair of matches at No. 2 UCLA. The first contest is scheduled for Friday at 8 p.m. MST and the second for the next day at 6 p.m. MST. 

BYU’s Trent Moser (9) celebrates after his game winning serve during match against UCSB at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News
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