Closure was absent from a BYU locker room that instead was permeated with disappointment following a five-set defeat to Stanford at Maples Pavilion in the MPSF tournament semifinals on April 20.
“It would have been fun to see what this group could have done. But I’m proud of them and I can look back and I can classify this group and this year as a massive success.” — BYU coach Shawn Olmstead
That was not how the Cougars’ turnaround season was supposed to end.
“I haven’t even unpacked,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said two weeks after the loss. “You just believed that we were going to be playing for more.”
Olmstead’s packed luggage is a reminder of what the BYU coach and his team pulled out of their bag this season to outpace expectations. However, for the Cougars, it felt like the bag hadn’t been emptied yet, leaving them with a feeling of incompleteness when everything abruptly ended and fate seemingly reversed course to snatch a nearly sure NCAA tournament bid from their grasp.
BYU dropped to No. 7 in the AVCA Poll following the defeat, capping off the year 19-7 overall, having won nine of its final 10 matches.
Though the misstep to No. 8 Stanford was not characterized as a bad loss, it didn’t sit well with a Cougars squad that had convincingly defeated the Cardinal two times just the week before.
“We were playing at a high level and to lose that game, we didn’t see it coming,” Olmstead said. “We wished we could have been playing more. It would have been fun to see what this group could have done. But I’m proud of them and I can look back and I can classify this group and this year as a massive success.”
The Cougars’ success stemmed from an offseason vision put into place by Olmstead and assistant coach Devin Young that would maximize the team element of the squad in what they called a “We over me approach.”
The coaches kept their players aware of that vision throughout the year and it worked; BYU ended its season as the only squad currently ranked in the top 10 without a player earning first- or second-team All-America honors.
The Cougars certainly hope to have a similar team-oriented approach to the upcoming season. Though the exact same group won’t be on the floor next year, many of the same faces will return and have another opportunity to show what they can do.
A pivotal position for BYU to fill going into next year will be setter after graduate transfer Heath Hughes ran out of eligibility following a season that saw him have a phenomenal impact on the program and its success. Olmstead feels Noa Haine, who has seen limited action over the past two seasons, is up for the challenge but will leave the position up for grabs when practices begin this fall.
Libero also has an opening following fifth-year senior Mitchel Worthington’s departure. Bernardo Adam, a true freshman this past year, will join Jackson Fife, who just completed his redshirt freshman season, as the Cougars’ only current full-time liberos on the roster.
Hughes and Worthington not only leave openings at their positions, but also create leadership voids that must be filled. Olmstead expects players such as Teon Taylor and recent All-America honorable mention Miks Ramanis to take on bigger leadership roles for the team next year when both begin their junior seasons.
BYU also returns serving specialist Jon Stanley for a sixth year. Stanley has one year of eligibility remaining due to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
“He is the heart and soul of our team,” Olmstead said of Stanley. “That’s a player for us that’s really, really crucial to our team.”
After the success of 2023, BYU knows it will have to adjust to greater attention come 2024.
“There’s going to be a little more eyes on us,” Olmstead said. “If there’s expectations, it usually means you’re doing things the right way. Whereas last year, there were none from outside looking in, now there’s going to be a few more.”
One of Olmstead’s offseason goals will be helping his team make fewer errors. The BYU coach feels that his team cost itself some opportunities this past year with mistakes.
“We have to limit errors,” Olmstead said. “We were a team that gave up a few too many points that were just unnecessary and really kind of hurt us in a handful of matches or just put us a step behind at times where we could have played a little cleaner volleyball.”
BYU will use the offseason to clean things up and prepare to take another step forward next year. Maybe that’s when closure will finally set in for the Cougars.