BYU men’s volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead is a former college libero. Back in the day, he passed some outstanding servers such as former All-Americans Sean Rooney (Pepperdine) and Scott Touzinsky (Long Beach State), both of whom played in the Olympics with Team USA. In practice he battled serves from talented teammates such as AVCA Player of the Year Carlos Moreno and All-American Rafael Paal.
But Olmstead never faced a serve like the one that comes off the rocket right arm of his own opposite hitter, Gabi Garcia Fernandez.
“I’ve never seen a serve that comes with the speed and the pace that his ball is coming with,” Olmstead said. “We don’t discuss anything about serving with Gabi. He has an extra green light.”
The Cougars (19-3) are the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will play in the semifinals May 6 in Columbus, Ohio. With possibly two matches left in his career, Fernandez is just four service aces away from breaking the BYU record of 182.
The record belongs to former Cougar and current Team USA star Taylor Sander, a mark set just seven years ago and one that was deemed virtually unbreakable.
Instead, Fernandez has gotten hot at the end of the season — he has 11 aces in the past four matches — to approach the all-time record.
“That’s crazy,” Olmstead said. “It’s crazy to think about that with the number that it could be at. Last year we had a handful of matches cancelled plus the MPSF Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. And this season is shortened as well. That’s pretty freaking remarkable.”
Fernandez burst onto the scene as a freshman with 51 aces in 2018 and added 32 more in 2019. His 2020 season was on pace to be one of the all-time best. In just 61 sets, Fernandez had 56 aces — a BYU single-season record — before the season was cancelled. Twice that year (at Mount Olive and at Hawaii) he logged eight aces in a single match.
Fernandez averages .531 aces per set over his career, which is actually better than Sander’s .442.
In the MPSF semifinals last week, Fernandez served four straight aces against Grand Canyon, each one harder to handle than the last and approached speeds up to 78 miles per hour.
While virtually everyone struggles returning Fernandez’s serves, Cougar backup libero Zach Hendrickson seems to have figured it out.
“If you come to our practices and watch our guys train, Zach can pass all of Gabi’s serves,” Olmstead said. “He’ll hit a rocket of a serve — 78, 78 miles per hour — and there’s Zach with the perfect pass.”
Fernandez is blessed with great natural arm speed but has worked hard to perfect his craft.
“Gabi has done a great job and he’s gotten better and better,” Olmstead said. “Sometimes he takes a little off to control. But when he gets the right toss his eyes light up. David Hunt (Pepperdine’s head coach) said it the other day: Gabi has a world-class arm. He hits it with speed and pace and it’s a very heavy ball.”
While Fernandez has an impressive 40 aces this season the number that isn’t calculated is how many times opponents were barely able to keep his serve in play, resulting in easy opportunities offensively for BYU.
“You have such little time to react,” Olmstead said. “It’s a tough serve to respond to.”
About his own serve, Fernandez said: “There’s no secret formula. You just have to calm yourself and know that every teammate on the court trusts you to do the right thing. If you believe in yourself, you can do the job. You do it (serve) over and over in the preseason. This is no different than the preseason. You just go out there, do your job and everybody has your back.”