BYU men’s volleyball fans have come to expect greatness from the Cougars year-in and year-out, so having a team that was sitting at 8-5 and ranked just No. 10 in the country isn’t the norm in Provo.
But 3,074 fans still crowded into the Smith Fieldhouse Friday night to see BYU host No. 3 UC Irvine.
And they got treated to the best show of the year.
With a lineup shuffled due to injuries, the Cougars rallied after losing the opening set, survived a 62-point thriller in the third frame and then closed out their best win of the season as they upset the Anteaters, 3-1 (20-25, 25-17, 32-30, 25-19).
“For us, this was a total team effort,” BYU head coach Shawn Olmstead said. “You always need team efforts but we are a little banged up, so we really needed a great team effort. All credit to the guys. They did a really nice job. I really liked what we did.”
The Cougars got tremendous performances from freshman outside hitter Davide Gardini (21 kills, .444 hitting percentage) and sophomore opposite hitter Gabi Garcia Fernandez (23 kills, .415 hitting percentage).
“It’s nice to have Gabi at the percentage we are kind of used to,” Olmstead said. “I told him that he’s kind of spoiled us but he’s been trying to find that groove and that rhythm this year. It was good for him to have this match. Davide has shown a lot of consistency for us, getting key points when we need those points. He did a really nice job as well.”
Gardini said he felt BYU rose to the challenge of facing a great opponent on their home floor.
“We knew it was going to be a tough match and we were ready for it,” Gardini said. “That’s all I can say. We knew we had some guys who weren’t able to play but we did our job. We wanted really bad to win and that helped us a lot.”
The turning point in the match was the dramatic third set, a frame where neither team led by more than two points.
“We were playing well but they ramped it up a little bit,” Gardini said. “They were playing as Irvine can do, so we tried to stay focused on what we had to do. I think it worked pretty well.”
UC Irvine had the first set point after a big kill by Joel Schneidmiller put the Anteaters in front, 24-23.
But the Cougars caught a couple of breaks as the ensuing UCI serve didn’t land in and then the Anteaters were called for a net violation.
BYU ended up needing seven set points before they finally were able to get the winning point — but the Cougars never gave UCI another set point either.
“Those are moments — as tough as they are — where we need to be in there and stay composed,” Olmstead said. “I felt the guys did that and made those plays at the right times.”
Both Olmstead and Gardini credit those 3,000-plus fans for creating a loud, intense environment that likely had an impact on the Anteaters. UCI had a trio of costly service errors that allowed BYU to easily stay in front.
Coming out on top in such a tense set gave the Cougars the momentum they needed to secure the upset.
“That was huge,” Gardini said. “Winning that set helped us a lot. I don’t know if we would be here talking now if we didn’t win that set.”
Olmstead credited his team for taking care of the basics.
“We served really tough and passed — for the most part — really well,” Olmstead said. “That alone kept us in the match. This season that is where things have gotten away from us. We haven’t been able to get the pass we needed to change the momentum and we did that tonight.”
Gardini said the win was gratifying since it came over a highly-ranked opponent but wasn’t sure if he could compare it to the others this season. Olmstead, on the other hand, said it was definitely the best considering the team UC Irvine has this year.
“They are a well-rounded team that is very well-coached,” Olmstead said. “They enjoy coming to Provo and playing in this environment, something not many teams enjoy.”
BYU knows the Anteaters are going to come back with a determined effort in the rematch on Saturday night, but Olmstead hopes his players see what they can gain from Friday’s win.
“They can build from moments like these on their own and develop from that,” he said. “We tell them the belief we have in them but I hope they feel that. That’s important.”
The Cougars will host UCI on Saturday at the Smith Fieldhouse, in a match scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.