It should be no surprise to anyone who was around for the 1999 NCAA men’s volleyball final that those Cougars are the best to ever put on the uniform in Provo.
That is according to the Daily Herald’s Greatest BYU Men’s Volleyball Tournament, which pitted eight of the best Cougar teams ever against each other.
In the final, the No. 1 seed 1999 team took down the No. 3 seed 2001 squad with 79% of the votes.
I was lucky enough to have covered all three BYU NCAA championship matches and that 1999 squad was truly one of the best ever.
Senior middle blocker Ryan Millar had a spectacular season (4.88 kills per set, .492, 2.16 blocks per set) and was named first team All-American, but the AVCA Player of the Year went to Pepperdine’s George Roumain. The Waves star was 6-foot-8 and 265 pounds, looking more like a defensive end than a volleyball star. He also won the Player of the Year award in 1998.
Millar went on to star for Team USA, was considered one of the best middle blockers in the world and won an Olympic gold medal in 2008.
Another senior, Ossie Antonetti (5.87 kps, .346) was named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player in 1999. Setter Hector Lebron would go on to lead the Cougars to the 2001 title as well. Outside hitters Steve Hinds and Rich Lambourne and middle blockers Scott Bunker and Mac Wilson were also key contributors on the championship team.
Tying everything together was the legendary Carl McGown, who never intended to coach college volleyball but fell into the profession and was one of the best ever. His training techniques are still used in just about every country in the world.
While the NCAA Finals were very exciting, probably the most intense moment of the season came a week earlier when BYU hosted the MPSF Tournament. The Cougars had never won that tournament but defeated USC 3-1 in the final in front of 5,558 screaming fans at the Smith Fieldhouse. The anticipation as BYU moved closer and closer to locking up the championship was indescribable.
The 2020 team lost in the semifinals of our tournament to the 1999 squad, but that group of players will hopefully have another chance at reaching the title. Word is that the roster will return pretty much in its entirely for 2021.
While researching for this project, one of the statistics that jumped out at me was the number 16: The fact that it’s been 16 years since the Cougars have brought home a national title in men’s volleyball. BYU has played in three championship matches since 2004 (2013, 2016, 2017) and advanced to the national semifinals in 2014 and 2018.
Both current coach Shawn Olmstead and analyst Steve Vail agreed during the “Men’s Volleyball: Unfinished Business” episode on BYUtv that the 1999 squad was the best.
Where does the 2020 team fit in that conversation?
“I was fortunate to be a part of some national championship teams,” said Olmstead, who was a libero for the Cougars on the 2001 and 2004 title winners. “We’d love an opportunity to put this group up against those teams. We have the pieces. We’ve got guys that can bring it from the service line, our ball control was getting better and better and we saw that, being able to handle the serves. Our blocking was pretty disciplined and our attack, Wil (Stanley) ran a really nice offense.
“That 1999 team — and I think that it is the best team BYU ever had in men’s volleyball — it’s safe to say this team could go compete with any of the other teams, and that would be a really fun matchup to see.”
Vail has competed against many of the BYU players in beach volleyball.
“I’m just saying these guys and what happened this year, man, they’ve got a strong argument to be one of greatest volleyball teams ever for BYU,” he said. “It’s just a sad and unfortunate thing that we never got to see it come to fruition.”