BYU men’s volleyball is mentally prepared for NCAA title game
BYU's Davide Gardini reaches in to grab a volleyball during practice for the NCAA finals at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, May 7, 2021.
BYU men's volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead (left, in while) gives instructions to his team during practice for the NCAA finals at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday, May 7, 2021.
Athletic Trainer Blaine Empey adds the BYU logo to the NCAA Tournament finals bracket after the Cougars defeated Lewis University 3-1 in the semifinals at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday, May 6, 2021.
BYU's Brody Earnest (24) is surrounded by teammates after the Cougars defeated Lewis University 3-1 in the NCAA semifinals at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday, May 6, 2021.
There’s a phrase that can be heard spoken by just about any BYU athlete, especially when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.
“Stay in the moment.”
The phrase comes from long time mental strength coach Craig Manning, and it’s a constant reminder to be appreciative of your opportunities, control what you can control and play your game.
“We’ve been working very closely with Craig Manning, sometimes daily,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “We’ve been doing that for years with him. We continually talk about all we can control is this moment and the opportunities we have. We can’t allow the things we can’t control to take away from what we want. We work a lot on the mental side of it and to be present.”
Perhaps no BYU program relishes the moment more right now than the men’s volleyball team. Last season, the Cougars were ranked No. 1 in the country when the NCAA shut down the season due to the pandemic. It was a missed opportunity to win the national title that has eluded BYU since claiming the 2004 championship. Three times since – 2013, 2016 and 2017 – the Cougars have fallen just short as the NCAA runner-up.
On Saturday, one of those big moments has arrived again. BYU, ranked No. 2 in the country, will take on No. 1 Hawaii for the NCAA championship at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio.
“We’re in a position right now to close the deal,” Cougar senior middle blocker Felipe de Brito Ferreira said. “We kept working hard all last year. It’s been a lot of hard work for two years and now we finally get the opportunity to play in this final. Hawaii is a great team and we’re excited to play them. We can’t wait.”
BYU demonstrated mental toughness in the semifinal win against Lewis University. The Cougars won the first two sets only to see the Flyers seize the momentum in Set 3 and force a fourth set. Late in that set, Jon Stanley came off the bench and served four straight points to get the Cougars to match point.
“It’s something that we’ve waited for,” outside hitter Davide Gardini said. “It was a long, long offseason last year. All we wanted to do was come back, and we knew that after how the season ended last year we were gonna be able to come back and have this bit of a season. Every single moment of the game we’re thinking: ‘Hey, that’s our goal. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to play on Saturday.’ It’s gonna mean a lot to us. I’m so excited for all of us to be able to play on Saturday, even the guys who didn’t make the trip. It’s gonna be a good, good day for all of us.”
Two of a kind
Saturday’s final features the past two NCAA Players of the Year in BYU’s Gabi Garcia Fernandez (2020) and Hawaii’s Rado Parapunov (2021).
“They both play the same position (opposite hitter) and play a similar role for their teams,” Olmstead said. “Rado is a lefty and Gabi is right handed. Being a lefty presents a few different matchups and looks for our guys, not only from the service line but offensively.
“We use Gabi’s arm to get us out of trouble. Both of them carry a big load for their teams. They are two big, physical guys who are going to go at each other all night.”
Parapunov led Hawaii with 12 kills in Thursday’s semifinal sweep of UC Santa Barbara but hit just .143, well below his season average of .340. He contributed a team high 11 digs and added three block assists.
Fernandez led BYU with 17 kills in Thursday’s 3-1 victory against Lewis, hitting .364. He also totaled two aces for a career total of 181. He’s just two short of breaking the program record, held by Olympian Taylor Sander (182).
“In general I think he’s easily up there as one of the best players in BYU volleyball history,” Wil Stanley said. “Dude has got a cannon for an arm. Yesterday I was taking to Davide and Zach (Eschenberg) during the game When Gabi gets an ace, I’m glad to be on this side of the net when that’s happening. He’s a game-changer and always has been. He’s one of those guys that if he serves or you set him, he’s going to get you a point.”
Wil Stanley is one of eight Hawaii natives participating in the finals, including his brother Jon and Warriors Cole Hogland, ‘Eleu Choy, Kana’i Akana, Colton Cowell, Akaka’i Todd and Makua Marumoto.
“Playing Hawaii is special,” Wil Stanley said. “I remember being two or three years old watching my brother (Olympian Clay Stanley) play at UH in the Stan Sheriff Center. It’s definitely something special being a Hawaii boy. You go in with an extra chip on your shoulder and you want to play your best game. To see the level of volleyball coming out of the state of Hawaii is a special thing.”
No. 1 Hawaii (16-1) vs. No. 2 BYU (20-3)
Saturday, 6 p.m. MT
Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio
The Word: BYU leads the overall series with Hawaii 41-19. … The two teams split a pair of matches in Honolulu in 2020. … The Cougars and Warriors are the only teams to be ranked No. 1 in men’s college volleyball this season. … BYU and Hawaii have never met in the NCAA Tournament. … The Cougars have won three NCAA titles (1999, 2001, 2004). … The Warriors are seeking their first title. … Hawaii won the 2002 NCAA championship but later had to vacate the victory due to the use of an ineligible player.