BYU mens volleyball vs. UCSB 18

Brigham Young University setter Wil Stanley (3) taps the ball past University of California Santa Barbara middle blocker Brandon Hicks (10) and outside hitter Ryan Wilcox (9) during a game between the BYU Cougars and the UCSB Gauchos held at Smith Fieldhouse on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Provo. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

The Smith Fieldhouse has been a home away from home for thousands of BYU athletes.

The 69-year-old building has seen its fair share of highlights and heartbreaks. One day after finding out their season had been canceled due to the COVID-19 virus, the players on the No. 1-ranked BYU men’s volleyball team had a meeting with head coach Shawn Olmstead to discuss the future. Afterwards, Wil Stanley, Zach Eschenberg and Andrew Lincoln peppered for a while then sat down on Elaine Michaelis Court to try to wrap their heads around what had just happened and recall better times.

“In the team meeting, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, especially the seniors,” said Stanley, who is a senior. “I was crying because it was a tough moment for me. It was comforting to see the younger guys were in tears, too. How much work they’ve put in, you could see how important to them this season was and how meaningful it was to them.”

The good news for Stanley and other Cougar seniors – Eschenberg, Lincoln, Miki Jauhiainen and Cyrus Fa’alogo — is that the NCAA is working on a plan to provide eligibility relief for athletes in all spring sports. Another year to pursue that elusive national championship sounds like a good idea to Stanley.

“It would be hard for me to say no to that,” Stanley said. “I feel like I haven’t given a full season to BYU and have unfinished business. We don’t know the exact details yet but they’ll figure out a way to make it work.”

Stanley earned the starting role as setter as a junior but his season was cut short due to a sports hernia and a fractured ankle. He played in 13 matches, averaging 9.52 assists per set. Stanley decided to stay in Provo over the spring and summer to rehabilitate.

“We’ve seen a shift in Wil,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “A lot of that comes with experience. He saw the value of just getting himself in a little better shape even before the fall training block started. He was so competitive in all our off-season conditioning. Every single one of them he would do what we wanted out of a leader. He was in the weight room all summer, getting groups together. He’s done a really good job and we can see it’s going to be important for us to keep him healthy.”

Stanley averaged 10.74 assists per set this season as BYU rolled to a 17-1 record and rose to the top of the rankings. On what turned out to be the final weekend of the season on March 5 and 6, the Cougars played two epic matches against then-No. 1 Hawaii in Honolulu. BYU played inspired volleyball in a 3-0 sweep on the first night and pushed the Rainbow Warriors to a fifth set the second night before falling 19-17.

“It was great being able to go home and have friends, family, my high school coaches and my club coaches see how we played and how much work we put in during the fall and the beginning of the year,” said Stanley, who grew up on the island. “We’ve been grinding out different parts of the season knowing we knew we were the best team in the country. Just being able to go out there and show everyone, to prove and make it known if we play our best ball no one is going to come near us, that’s No. 1 on my list to see everything accumulate like that.”

Another powerful memory for Stanley was the home opener against Penn State on January 10.

“I hadn’t played in the Fieldhouse since the injury against Stanford last year,” Stanley said. “I was more nervous than usual. There was a really good crowd (4,440) on opening night and the game was unbelievable. Jon (his younger brother) was able to come in and serve an ace and I got to celebrate with him. Everything was going right in the Fieldhouse and we knew we had a special team this year.”

The future is still unknown for Stanley and his teammates. Some may decide to come back for another year, others may move on to professional volleyball or different life opportunities. Olmstead, who was part of two national championship teams as a player at BYU (2001 and 2004) told his players in that final team meeting they had what it takes to win a title.

“The guys had the mindset that we were going to win and be the best team we could possibly be,” Stanley said. “The biggest thing about this year is we got better. Each player got better at something and we felt like we were a family on the court.

“You never know what’s going to happen. Guys could come back or they could not. But there’s a glimmer of hope and that’s what is pushing us to keep going.”

Follow Darnell Dickson on Twitter @darnellwrites or e-mail him at ddickson@heraldextra.com.

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