BYU Men’s Volleyball Season Preview: Cougars hoping to prove doubters wrong in 2023
Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo
It’s a long way for BYU to get back to the top of the men’s college volleyball world.
The Cougars aren’t afraid of the challenge.
“Nobody expects much from us, but I believe our fans are in for a show,” sophomore outside hitter Miks Ramanis said.
BYU opens the 2023 season on Friday in the Smith Fieldhouse against McKendree and Ramanis is right: Expectations for the Cougars aren’t very high. In fact, for the first time in the 34-year history of the program, BYU isn’t ranked in the preseason AVCA Top 15.
“I’m not doing my job if I didn’t help these kids have realistic goals, but then to go outside of those,” Cougar coach Shawn Olmstead said. “This group, if they stay together and continue to build, can be really good. National championships are usually won with juniors and seniors, and we still have a handful of young guys out there. But this group really enjoys being around each other and competing. Certain guys in the gym are going to have to raise their level, step up and be stronger and better.”
Where were we?
Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo
BYU had to replace most of a lineup that reached the NCAA championship match in 2021 and predictably struggled last season. For the first time since since 1996, the Cougars finished with a losing record (8-17), suffering a nine-match losing streak, followed by three straight wins, followed by six losses in a row to end the campaign. BYU pushed No. 3 seed Pepperdine in the MPSF Tournament but fell 3-2 in the first round.
Senior Davide Gardini was a first-team All-American, leading the Cougars with 386 kills (4.11 per set) to finish his career.
BYU trotted out 16 different starting lineups in 2022 and returns many of the athletes who earned playing time, led by 6-6 sophomore outside hitter Miks Ramanis (2.82 kps, .250). Ramanis spent part of his summer playing for the Latvian national team.
“It was amazing,” Ramanis said. “I learned a lot about myself and how to balance my life with volleyball. I learned a ton of new stuff on the court with positioning and tactics. It was a huge learning opportunity.”
There are several players who could fill the other outside hitter role, including sophomore Luke Benson and freshmen Trent Moser, Jared Brady and Brigham Spilsbury. Another intriguing option is versatile 6-3 freshman Bernardo Adam, who has played with the Brazilian national team and has only been in Provo two weeks.
Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo
Olmstead compared Adam to another Brazilian, Fernando Pessoa, who helped lead the Cougars to two national titles: As a libero in 2001 and as an outside hitter in 2004.
“No doubt Bernardo is undersized,” Olmstead said. “But he can really pass the ball and rarely gets himself in trouble as an attacker. Every day in practice he tears up our guys. I’m not sure when he’s going to see the court but it would not shock me for him to acclimate quickly because his volleyball IQ is so high.”
Junior Kupono Browne (2.63 kps, .294) has moved to opposite hitter and will be pushed by 6-6 sophomore Anthony Cherfan.
The middle blocker spots will be manned by returners Gavin Julien, a 6-7 junior, and Teon Taylor, a 6-6 sophomore.
Grand Canyon transfer Heath Hughes, a 6-7 senior, has taken the lead at setter with energetic sophomore Noa Haine ready to make a contribution as well.
“We’ll start with Heath,” Olmstead said. “He’s going to give us a lot of experience. He competed in the collegiate championships in Brazil this summer and he’s sees the game a little bit faster than others.”
Libero Mitchel Worthington returns for a fifth season (due to COVID) along with defensive specialist and serving ace Jon Stanley.
Tested every week
BYU, which plays in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, will play 10 of the preseason Top 15 teams in 2023, which should led the Cougars know where they stand pretty quickly.
“Our biggest lesson we learned from last year is to know that the team comes first,” Ramanis said. “We had some internal problems and after the season, we realized we needed to do better. We’re fighting for each other and nobody comes before our teammates. We definitely have an opportunity to do that.”
BYU will need to continue to improve its serve and pass game to avoid a repeat of last season’s disappointing performance.
“Our team is physical,” Raminis said. “Everyone jumps high and hits hard. We need to pass well to make our setter’s life easy. That would definitely be a breakthrough for us. We need to do that consistently on every single play to hold up on our side and put the ball down on the other.”
As for expectations, Ramanis invites all Cougars opponents to doubt them.
“I love being perceived as below standard,” Ramanis said. “I love the fire that provides and the kick start we get from that. I love the feeling that gives us.”
BYU Men’s Volleyball
Five Story Lines to Follow
The Cougars will count on the growth potential of a young roster that includes 14 underclassmen and only three seniors.
2. Who’s next?
BYU will play 10 of the preseason Top 15 teams during 2023, with five of the top 11 coming from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
3. New blood
Other than graduated All-American Davide Gardini, outside hitter Alex Ah Sue and middle blocker Brandon Oberender, a large number of contributors return from 2022. Two key additions are 6-7 setter Heath Hughes, who transferred from Grand Canyon, and 6-3 Brazilian outside hitter Bernardo Adam.
4. Different challenge
With four national titles and four other championship game appearances, the Cougars are usually among the top teams in the country. BYU is outside of the preseason Top 15 for the first time since becoming a Division I program in 1990.
5. Home court rules
Traditionally, BYU has been terrific in the Smith Fieldhouse, which creates one of the most unique and intense environments in college volleyball. The Cougars were just 7-7 at home last year but 30-4 over the previous three seasons.