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BYU men’s volleyball tries to find positives after falling short of NCAA title

By Darnell Dickson daily Herald - | May 11, 2021
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BYU's (from left) Alex Ah Sue, Zach Hendrickson, Miki Jauhiainen, Felipe de Brito Ferreira, Zach Eschenberg, Davide Gardini, Mitch Worthington and Wil Stanley acknowledge the fans at the NCAA championship match against Hawaii at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

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BYU's Gabi Garcia Fernandez launches a serve in the NCAA championship match against Hawaii at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

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BYU's Wil Stanley gets ready to set the ball during the NCAA championship match against Hawaii at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

On Monday, the BYU men’s volleyball team was voted second in the final American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.

Just another reminder of a season that fell short of the intended goal.

The Cougars were national runner-ups in 2021, a nice accomplishment for any program. Thing is, super seniors Wil Stanley, Miki Jauhianen and Zach Echenberg didn’t return for an additional year to finish second. The goal was the national title and the players were never shy in sharing that with anyone who would listen.

Hawaii proved to be a significant barrier to that goal, sweeping BYU 25-20, 25-19, 25-16 in the championship match at the Covelli Center in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday. The Cougars were outplayed in just about every way possible and put up little resistance as the Warriors won the school’s first NCAA men’s volleyball title.

Hawaii totaled 10 aces and BYU’s serve receive game simply broke under the pressure. It was a virtual repeat of Cougar losses in the 2016 and 2017 NCAA title matches against Ohio State.

If you can’t consistently pass serves in men’s college volleyball you are pretty much on a path to defeat.

“I wish I had a perfect answer,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “We began to get tentative. The guys were not communicating. We even changed into a different look but we still couldn’t get going. It was uncharacteristic. Mitch (Worthington) has been an outstanding libero for us the entire season but he had a rough night. That’s sports and athletics. Sometimes those things fall that way.”

The Cougars have worked hard over the course of the season to improve their reception numbers. Heading into the Hawaii match, BYU had posted a season reception percentage of 93%. Against the Warriors, the Cougars committed 10 reception errors and never really gave themselves a chance to challenge their opponent.

Stanley said despite the painful loss there were no regrets about coming back.

“Before the season I talked to everyone who was going to be a senior,” he said. “We just said, ‘We’re in 100 percent. We’ll fight with you guys and we love playing with your guys. We want it.’

“The collective joy in wanting to come back was not just us seniors. These guys wanted us to be a part of this team and get to this spot. This season was something different. It was not a normal season at all but I wouldn’t trade this season for any amount of money. For what we got this year, the memories and the brotherhood we got, we were strengthened over and over again. The experience of playing with each other again is something I’ll never forget.”

Olmstead said 2021 was probably the toughest year of his coaching career but probably the most rewarding.

“For Wil, Esch and Miki to come back and put all their faith and trust into the rest of the group and into the coaching staff, words can’t adequately express what it mean for those guys to come back to BYU and the team. The guys know how I feel about them. I love this group. This one (loss) is extra tough because of the group and their dynamics. I’m super proud of these guys. I’m confident they know who they are. I’m even prouder of the tough things they’ve gone through as a group.

“Each team is special and unique. The group of guys will rank for sure at the top of my list. I appreciate that they have given us a chance to be their coaches.”

Olmstead has been fortunate to coach this group, which includes seven players who are moving on. Stanley, Juahiainen, Eschenberg, Felipe de Brito Ferreira, Gabi Garcia Fernandez, Zach Hendrickson and Cyrus Fa’alogo have all played a big part in the past five seasons. In that five-year span, the Cougars have won 98 matches, claimed two MPSF titles, made three Final Fours and two NCAA title match appearances.

Stanley, Juahiainen and de Brito Ferreira will have professional opportunities as will Fernandez. The four-time All-American and 2020 NCAA Player of the Year could also play for the Puerto Rican national team. Eschenberg has been applying to dental schools and will hang around long enough to watch his wife, Kennedy, play her final season for the Cougar women’s volleyball team this fall.

First team All-American Davide Gardini is expected to return, though he will likely receive professional offers this summer. Worthington will return as the libero but it’s clear Olmstead is facing a pretty big rebuilding job.

Freshman Zeo Meyer is expected to take over Stanley’s setter position and is highly regarded by the coaching staff. Middle blocker Gavin Julien is explosive and Brandon Oberender has has experience in the middle, having played in 57 sets over his three seasons in Provo.

Olmstead is very high on 6-foot-6 freshman pin hitter Miks Ramanis, who has been invited to play in a prestigious Team USA international tournament this summer. The Class of 2021 includes USA Volleyball Junior National team standout Luke Benson, who is considered one of the top players in California.

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