LOS ANGELES — BYU men’s volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead had trouble finding the words to describe the end of the season.
The Cougars had plenty of success in 2018, beginning with knocking off then-No. 1 Ohio State in five sets in Columbus on Jan. 13. BYU was ranked as high as No. 2 in the country and went on to win the MPSF regular-season title and the conference tournament championship to earn the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But the season came to a close on Thursday at Pauley Pavilion when BYU lost a 3-1 decision to UCLA in the NCAA semifinals. Two of those sets went to extra points, but the Bruins made big plays down the stretch to hold off the Cougars.
That’s five Final Fours and three national championship appearances for BYU in the past six seasons but no titles.
“Like I told the guys, you try, as a coach, to say the perfect thing or exactly what they want to hear at this moment,” Olmstead said. “I’m going to be honest — it’s tough. So I don’t know if I have the exact words for these guys, but I’m proud of them.
“My entire coaching career, I’ve never had a group that’s been through more adversity from the start of the school year to this point. I don’t know — again, maybe it’s raw and the truth, but to think that this group is even here in this moment right now … I’m just proud of these guys, every single one of them, for what they’ve overcome throughout the entire year.”
Brenden Sander’s career also came to a close Thursday night, ending what has been eight years of a Sander wearing No. 15 in the blue and white. Brenden’s older brother, Taylor, also wore No. 15. He was a BYU All-American from 2011 to 2014 and is currently playing for the U.S. National Team.
Olmstead was asked in the post-match news conference about the possibility of hanging another No. 15 from the Smith Fieldhouse rafters.
“Maybe make it a triple, because I was No. 15,” Olmstead joked. “You know, so put me there. I’m kidding. I’ll get emotional and again, it’s just raw, but I’m a coach. Maybe it’s because I’ve got a 5-week old at home, so maybe I’m a little more emotional.”
Olmstead talked about the first time he ever met Brenden Sander, back in 2013 on the very Pauley Pavilion court that the Cougars walked off of on Thursday night. Olmstead was coaching the BYU women’s team at the time but was attending the NCAA men’s Final Four.
“His mom asked me, ‘Hey, can you go talk to my son? I really want him to go to BYU,’” Olmstead recalled. “So it’s fitting we’re here. I got to be a part of Brenden’s life — a small part. He came to BYU and was willing to take on the ‘You’ve got to fill your brother’s shoes’ and he didn’t back down from that. He just got better and better and better. He’s as good as his brother, and he’s an outstanding young man.”
Brenden Sander reflected on his experience in Provo as well.
“My time at BYU, I don’t have any words to explain it,” he said. “It’s been the most amazing experience of my life. I’ve met some of the best friends I will ever have and they are the greatest guys in the world, even the coaches. I can stay friends with those guys forever because we have such close relationships.
“I would go to battle with these guys 10 times out of 10, I don’t care. These are my boys right here.”
The big numbers
Seniors Sander, setter Leo Durkin and middle blocker Price Jarman left quite a legacy at BYU.
Sander finished second all-time in the school’s rally-scoring era with 116 service aces (older brother Taylor is No. 1 with 182) and fifth all-time in kills (1,119). Durkin ended his career second all-time in assists (3,282) and Jarman is sixth in block assists (349).
Between them, the trio started 265 matches the past four seasons and helped the Cougars to three Final Fours and two national championship matches.
The past two years, BYU’s postseason has come to a close on the opponent’s home floor.
The Cougars lost to Ohio State in Columbus in last year’s national championship match and in 2018, BYU fell to UCLA in the Final Four at Pauley Pavilion.
It’s the luck of the draw — the Final Four venues are determined years in advance — but it’s been bad luck for the Cougars nonetheless.
“It’s pretty incredible,” UCLA’s Jake Arnitz said after Thursday’s victory. “I think it’s a huge advantage to just be able to sleep in our own beds. It almost feels like it’s just any other game and it’s not the playoffs or anything. And then, of course, the crowd. I think that helps a lot, Saturday will be interesting with Long Beach because they bring a good crowd being right down the freeway.”
Attendance at Pauley Pavilion (12,829) for the BYU-UCLA semifinal was 4,249.
Frustration from the service line
BYU picked a bad night to have one of its worst serving matches of the year.
The Cougars logged 25 service errors in the four-set loss to UCLA, the second-highest total of the season. BYU had 26 service errors on March 15 in a four-set win against USC.
In addition — for the first time in 29 matches this season — the Cougars failed to register a single service ace.
The last time BYU faced UCLA was in the MPSF Tournament title match on April 21 and on that night the Cougars aced the Bruins five times in a four-set win.
UCLA finished with 22 errors in its semifinal win but registered seven aces, including a pair of crucial aces in Set 3 from freshman Grant Meleski and junior setter Micah Ma’a.
UCLA coach John Speraw had a simple explanation for the big advantage in the serve game.
“Altitude,” he said. “Playing at BYU is a different experience. How the ball flies and how they serve there, it just has such an impact on how the game is played. It’s really tough to play at BYU. They have a great crowd and all that too. We are at sea level. A lot more oxygen. It’s good for us.”
The big one
Top-ranked Long Beach State, which won its only NCAA title in 1991, will take on UCLA for the NCAA championship on Saturday. The Bruins last won a title in 2006.
“They (Long Beach State) are the fastest team in the country,” Speraw said. “So part of this next match is going to be how we adapt to that speed and how we make adjustments. It’s a significant challenge. I’ve said before that this (LBSU) is one of the best collegiate teams I’ve ever seen. This is a great team we are going to play. That’s what we want. Shoot, you want to play the best team at the end and we are going to have an opportunity to do that.”
The championship match will be played at 5 p.m. MST and will be televised on ESPN2.