Midway through BYU’s 2023 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation men’s volleyball schedule, the Cougars couldn’t have known what was on the line when they were tied at 15 in the fifth set during a match at Grand Canyon. BYU would find out the hard way a couple months later after the Antelopes went on to score the final two points and secure arguably their biggest win of the year.

“(We were) the first team out and that literally probably came down to a few points here and there.” — BYU coach Shawn Olmstead

Flash forward to May and the NCAA men’s volleyball committee had to decide who was more deserving of the final at-large tournament bid, BYU or Grand Canyon. 

“Unfortunately, we got beat against (Grand Canyon),” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “We went on the road and we … lost in five to that team 17-15.”

By the end of the season, despite losing to the Antelopes, the Cougars felt they had the upper hand after finishing their final 10 matches with a 9-1 record compared to Grand Canyon, which lost five of its final six contests leading up to the committee’s decision. 

Ironically, BYU played against the Antelopes without starting setter and Grand Canyon transfer Heath Hughes — a key piece to the Cougars’ 2023 season. Hughes may have been the difference BYU needed in its two-point defeat that fateful March night. 

“You put in anything you would like the committee to consider,” Olmstead said of the tournament selection process. “That’s their judgment if they consider it or not. And we put in there that our starting setter … went out for six matches with a broken finger … and we lost that match.”

Why BYU volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead compares this year’s team to Formula 1

Head-to-head won the day, however, leaving BYU on the outside looking in and marking just the third time the Cougars had been kept out of the NCAA Tournament under Olmstead. 

“(We were) the first team out and that literally probably came down to a few points here and there,” Olmstead said. “But it is what it is. That’s why you got to play the games and win the matches. … We were as close as you could get.”

Coming so close left the Cougars hungry as they headed into the offseason.  

“That definitely motivated the guys,” Olmstead said. “That was a big motivating factor for these guys and their work in the gym.”

Olmstead indicated that BYU was motivated by its disappointing finish at the MPSF tournament as well. The Cougars might have overcome their blunder in Phoenix, had they performed better in league postseason play. The school’s lone loss in its last 10 matches came in another fifth-set flub, this time against Stanford in the conference semifinals held at Maples Pavilion.

After beating the Cardinal twice the week before, the Cougars fell by a mere three points in the extra frame, leaving their fate up to the committee; an abrupt end to a promising season.   

“It was a very, very strange feeling for every one of us because this team was just playing really good volleyball,” Olmstead said. “(Our players) were so confident in themselves and they played that way. … When that match was over, when we lost in five in the tournament, it wasn’t like this real closure. It was very strange. It was a very strange feeling.”

Olmstead’s squad does not want to feel that way again, giving the team a greater hunger over the past year. Still, the focus remains on what’s ahead and not what’s in the past. 

“This group’s excited for this season,” Olmstead said. “We are … a new team, with a new challenge in front of us and so there’s excitement in that.”

Moving ahead, BYU will take its lessons from the past and do everything it can to make sure a few points isn’t what keeps the school from a tournament bid this year. 

The No. 9 Cougars return to the court this weekend in a pair of matches at No. 15 UC Santa Barbara. The initial contest will be played Friday at 7 p.m., with the second taking place Saturday. 

BYU takes on Ball State in volleyball match on Jan. 6, 2024, at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, Utah. | Abby Shelton, BYU Photo