BYU men’s volleyball ready for big moment in NCAA semifinals
BYU men's volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead (center) talks to his team during practice at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in preparation for the NCAA semifinals.
BYU's Miki Jauhiainen (left) and Wil Stanley stretch before practice at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in preparation for the NCAA semifinals.
BYU's Wil Stanley (left), Shawn Olmstead (center) and Zach Eschenberg answer questions at a new conference in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in preparation for the NCAA semifinals.
BYU's Zach Eschenberg answers questions at a news conference in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in preparation for the NCAA semifinals.
BYU's Miki Jauhiainen takes a swing during practice at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in preparation for the NCAA semifinals.
BYU never got a chance to prove they were the best team in men’s college volleyball during the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season.
In his mind, Cougar coach Shawn Olmstead said he knew his team was at the top.
“I can’t deny a handful of other teams could have gotten hot,” Olmstead said. “All I said to my guys is what any coach in my shoes would have said: In that moment in time, you guys were the best team in Division I volleyball. Now, I believe this is a really good team. I believe in these guys. They know that and I know they know that. The guys are here. We get a chance and that’s all we can ask for right now.”
The Cougars – the No. 2 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament – will try to make the most of that opportunity Thursday night when they meet Lewis in the semifinals at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio. BYU’s entire starting lineup from 2020, including seniors Zach Eschenberg, Wil Stanley and Miki Jauhiainen, decided to return for an additional year to win the title. Players such as Gabi Garcia Fernandez and Davide Gardini opted to forgo lucrative offers to play professional volleyball to come back to Provo for another season.
Olmstead couldn’t help but get emotional talking about the identity of his team.
“As I get older I get sappy, but it’s more about these relationships and this time together,” Olmstead said. “I believe at the core of it, they are a great group of young men with outstanding backgrounds and families who have supported them, giving a lot of time and energy to each of them. And they are becoming a pretty darn good volleyball team, and that’s exciting.”
The Cougars have been off since winning the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title on April 24, putting in practice time, lifting weights and going through multiple rounds of COVID-19 testing.
BYU won national titles in 1999, 2001 and 2004 while finishing second in 2003, 2013, 2016 and 2017. Eschenberg said it’s hard to put into words how he and his teammates feel about the chance to win the school’s first men’s volleyball title in 17 years.
“I can’t even talk about the drive for this program to go in and grab a national championship,” Eschenberg said. “The number of years of me watching as a kid versus being on the right right here and not being able to do it, it definitely motivated all of us. Mitch (Worthington), Miki and I were on the team that went to the finals (in 2018) and lost to Ohio State.
“We just really want it bad. We’ve been working so hard since last year and we really want it. It’s a big reason why we all came back. There are a ton of good teams here and we know we’ve got to earn it. It’s a huge motivational factor that we’ve been close and we know we have the potential to do it.”
Lewis (21-2), which won the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association title and swept Penn State in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, is a formidable road block. It’s not often BYU goes up against a team as big or even bigger than it is, but the Flyers go 6-foot-11, 6-9 and 6-9 in their front line as well as 6-8 at the setter position.
Outside hitter Ryan Coenen (6-9) and middle blocker Tyler Mitchem (6-11) were both selected as AVCA first team All-Americans. Against Penn State, Coenens had 12 kills and Mitchem 14 (with zero errors).
“A good defense to that is to be able to get those guys off the net,” Olmstead said. “Their setter does a real nice job finding those guys 10 to 12 feet off the net and finding those guys in transition. We need to keep pressure on those guys and keep the setter as far off the net as possible. Those guys in the middle are big, strong kids, good athletes and pretty good volleyball players. We’ll do our best to stay properly aggressive and find that place of confidence in the guys. It’ll be two great teams with two great game plans.”
Olmstead was part of two NCAA titles at BYU as a player (2001, 2004). Once in a while he reminds the team what it takes to bring home the big gold trophy. But he also knows living in this moment belongs to his players are they try to create their own legacy.
“The guys don’t need my ‘rah, rah’ right now,” Olmstead said. “They’d probably just tune me out. I’m just fortunate to be along for the ride with these dudes.”
No. 2 BYU (19-3) vs. Lewis (21-2)
Thursday, 6 p.m. MT
Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio
Live stream: ncaa.com
The Word: BYU is 15-3 all-time against Lewis and won the last meeting 3-1 in the 2018 Outrigger Resort Invitational in Hawaii. … The Flyers beat the Cougars in five sets for the 2003 NCAA title but later had to forfeit the victory due to using ineligible players. … Lewis swept Penn State on Tuesday to reach the semifinals. … The Flyers were NCAA runner-ups (to Loyola-Chicago) in 2015. … The other semifinal pits No. 1 Hawaii (15-1) against Big West foe UC-Santa Barbara (16-4).