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National championship or bust? BYU’s No. 1-ranked men’s volleyball team dealing with sky-high expectations

Cougars got a season-opening wakeup call with a 3-1 loss to No. 8 UCLA but played without All-American setter Wil Stanley. They swept the Bruins 3-0 when they were at full strength on Saturday and maintained their No. 1 ranking this week.

BYU’s Gabi Garcia Fernandez was the 2020 National Player of the Year after the season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic and is a big reason why the Cougars are ranked No. 1 to open the 2021 season and a favorite to win the national championship.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

Every starter and almost every major contributor on the BYU men’s volleyball team that was ranked No. 1 when the 2020 season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic last March returned for the 2021 season.

Expectations were through the roof.

Then the highly touted Cougars actually had to play a match.

The No. 8 UCLA Bruins dominated the Cougars, who had picked up the preseason No. 1 ranking from the NVA/AVCA Coaches Poll on Jan. 4, taking a 3-1 upset win at Smith Fieldhouse on Feb. 4, UCLA’s first win in Provo since 2009.

Talk about getting a wakeup call.

“I thought it was a really valuable lesson for the guys, that rankings and predictions and those things at the start really mean nothing,” coach Shawn Olmstead said Tuesday. “All the credit in the world to UCLA. It is competition. Nobody is going to roll over, and nobody is going to back away from competing just because of your ranking, your reputation.”

BYU played that first match without returning All-American setter Wil Stanley, who had sprained his ankle in practice a few days earlier; true freshman Zeo Meyer started at setter, and the Cougars struggled offensively even though UCLA was without three starters.

Two days later, the Cougars got a measure of revenge with Stanley back in the lineup, sweeping the Bruins 3-0 to split the two-match series. But whatever aura of invincibility the Cougars possessed for the 2021 season was gone. UCLA’s dominating victory in the opener stunned many in the volleyball community.

Surprisingly, BYU held onto its No. 1 ranking when the new rankings were released the following Monday, just ahead of No. 2 Hawaii, which had yet to play a match. The Big West begins play in late February. BYU and Hawaii got eight first-place votes apiece, but the Cougars had a few more second-place votes than the Warriors. UCLA moved up to No. 6.

BYU is scheduled to play only Mountain Pacific Sports Federation matches this regular season, 20 in all, but Olmstead said he has some nonbinding agreements to play three or four nonconference teams if MPSF matches are canceled due to COVID-19 issues.

The Cougars prevailed in a pair of matches against Pepperdine last weekend (3-0 and 3-1), improving their record to 3-1 heading into Thursday’s match against Grand Canyon University.

For their part, Olmstead and 2020 All-American honorable mention outside hitter Zach Eschenberg said earlier this month that the Cougars still feel good about their chances to contend for a national championship this season.

Both stopped short of saying it is national championship or bust in 2021 for BYU’s highly successful program, but that is clearly the expectation. Fourteen returners are back from the team that went 17-1 last year (6-0 in MPSF play) and was the national championship favorite last year in early March before the season was abruptly ended.

BYU had just split two matches with No. 1 Hawaii last March 5 and 6 in Honolulu, sweeping the Warriors the first night 3-0 before falling 3-2 a night later. College sports getting shut down “was emotionally devastating,” Eschenberg said last summer.

But that was then. This is now.

Every contributor is back with the exception of outside hitter Andrew Lincoln; Olmstead said “it just means the world” that seniors who could have graduated and moved on to professional careers abroad returned to take care of the unfinished business.

“We are confident that we have a really good team,” he said. “If we can make the most of every day, we are going to be a really good team at the end of April and the first weekend of May. There are going to be ups and downs. We already saw it this first weekend. If we can take something from those ups and downs, we believe we are going to be in a really good spot.”

Eschenberg’s take on the national championship or bust expectations: “Every team at BYU, every year, is always competitive and is always pushing towards that. I won’t say it was a bust if we don’t win the national championship, but it is definitely something that all of us believe we can do. We have that end goal in the backs of our mind, with all the other goals we are pushing to hit along the way.”

Eschenberg, who is married to BYU women’s volleyball star Kennedy (nee Redding) Eschenberg, said for now the biggest goal is “to pick up right where we left off last year” and develop the same cohesion and winning attitude.

The UCLA series “taught us that we have a lot of talent, and that despite running into some adversity, our guys can bounce back,” he said. “We came back for the second game really, really motivated, and I think that is one of our strengths, how much energy we can bring, top to bottom, and how we can bounce back from our mistakes.”

Having outstanding players helps. Back for BYU is Gabi Garcia Fernandez, the 2020 AVCA National Player of the Year and MPSF Player of the Year. An opposite hitter, he led the NCAA last season in points per set (5.56) and aces per set (.918).

Returning outside hitter Davide Gardini and Stanley also earned All-America honors last year, while Felipe de Brito Ferreira and Miki Jauhiainen, middle blockers, earned all-MPSF honors. Two-year starting libero Mitchel Worthington also returns.

Olmstead, who is the brother of BYU women’s volleyball coach Heather Olmstead, said this year’s team should be better from the service line, based on what he’s seen in practices.

“We’ve seen a pretty good improvement there,” he said. “I think we are a better passing team. Our offense is also a little different than last year, a little faster. I think if we can control that and really continue to build at the right time with our offense, and make good decisions, we are going to give our hitters a lot of opportunities. I think we have a more balanced offense, too.”

That wasn’t apparent in the opener, as newcomer Meyer went to Garcia Fernandez early and often, but it was in the second-day sweep.

“And another thing is we are better defensively scrambling behind the block,” Olmstead said. “We have put a lot of time and attention into that. Now we just need our block to get back to where it has been because we have put so much energy and focus and time into that back row stuff.”

The Cougars are seeking their first national championship since 2004, although in some circles they were the unofficial national champs in 2020.

“It was kind of a bummer, doing so well last year, but we never really accomplished anything lasting, if you know what I mean,” Eschenberg said. “We had a great season and we will all will remember that. It was very special to us as players, and our caches and even our fans. But that’s definitely driving us into this next season, because we want everything we accomplished last season, and more. So we are going to work for that, top to bottom, and we want to continue what we started last year.”

Without an abrupt ending.