The No. 1 ranked BYU men’s volleyball team was ten minutes away from boarding a plane bound for California when they found out their upcoming match had been cancelled.
The Cougars were coming off a tremendous weekend in Honolulu, splitting a pair of matches with then-No. 1 Hawaii and claiming the top spot in last Monday’s American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. The second half of Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play was about to begin with a road trip to Palo Alto to play Stanford.
“We already had 30 bags on the plane and we had to have Delta go and take them off,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said in a teleconference call on Monday. “All at once things just kind of began to fall.”
Earlier in the week, Stanford announced it would only allow a limited number of fans into Maples Pavilion for Friday’s match due to concerns over the COVID-19 virus. On Thursday, the PAC-12 cancelled all of its athletic events. Later in the day, the NCAA cancelled the seasons and championships for winter and spring sports.
The Cougars – 17-1 overall and 6-0 in MPSF play – had moved into the favorite role for May’s NCAA championships but like the rest of college sports has had to figure out a way to process the premature end to their season.
Olmstead said his first thoughts were to all of those teams, programs and individuals affected by the decision.
“As we gathered more information it was tough for our guys, for sure,” Olmstead said. “We had an emergency meeting that night with our administration and all of our guys just trying to get on the same page. We wanted to be there for our guys and try to answer questions that we didn’t have a lot of answers for at the time. As we move forward I think we’ve been able to process the pride that we take from the season we had is something that we can forever hold onto.”
Olmstead said the majority of his players are still on campus even though classes have been cancelled or moved online and students have been encouraged to go home. The players can’t practice or participate in team activities but can still do some workouts as individuals or small groups.
Sophomore Davide Gardini and volunteer assistant coach Giuseppe Vinci are both from Italy and are obviously concerned about how hard the virus has hit that country.
“It’s a little different for Davide than for anybody else on the team,” Olmstead said. “His mom and sister were here for the USC and Stanford home games (Feb. 22 and 29) and because of the lockdown in Italy were fortunate to get back into the country. Giuseppe’s mom was out here because his wife had a baby a couple of months ago. Her tourist visa was expiring and she couldn’t go home, so they had to fly three hours to Cabo San Lucas then fly back to the US to come through immigration to explain what was going on.
“Davide is staying upbeat even as this is impacting his family more and more. He’s kept a good attitude about it. He’s praying and hoping for the best. He’s perfect example of a student that wanted to go home but obviously he can’t.”
The NCAA has announced plans to provide eligibility relief to student-athletes in spring sports that would allow them another year. BYU’s volleyball roster is pretty dynamic with seniors Zach Eschenberg, Mike Jauhiainen, Andrew Lincoln, Cyrus Fa’alogo and Wil Stanley expected to graduate. In addition, Gardini and junior Gabi Garcia Fernandez, along with Jauhiainen and Stanley, will likely be considering professional playing opportunities at some point.
“Every season has its own story and I tell these guys they are writing their story,” Olmstead said. “I think experience is the master teacher so if we can get those guys back who have been through our program and our culture I believe they can continue to build upon what was left this year.”
BYU has won three national titles (1999, 2001 and 2004). The Cougars have played in the national championship match three times since 2013 without a win. The 2020 season was shaping up to be a strong championship run.
Garcia Fernandez was putting together a Player of the Year-type season. His 56 aces set a new BYU single-season record with six regular-season matches left to play. Gardini was having a fantastic sophomore campaign and Stanley, who sat out most of last year due to injury, was leading one of the top offenses in the country from his setter position. Eschenberg had become a steady attacker when teams ganged up on Gardini and Garcia Fernandez. Jauhiainen and junior Filipe de Brito Ferreira were helping to produce record blocking numbers.
Olmstead said, “The players are the magic.”
“What a great group of guys that have been able to establish themselves as some of the best players in the country this year,” he continued. “We’ve got guys that can compete for national awards. I’m happy for them and proud of them for the season we’ve had thus far. I know that in those tough moments they will always be able to hold onto what they had as a team. That culture they built with our coaching staff and the trust they put in each other, that’s the big deal.”
The last experience this team had playing together was two days in Honolulu as No. 2 BYU traveled to No. 1 Hawaii on March 5 and 6. The Cougars swept the Rainbow Warriors in the first match and the second was extended to five sets before Hawaii won 19-17. The Thursday night game produced a crowd of 6,977, then second a sellout at the Stan Sheriff Center at 10,300.
“Canceling the championships was beyond our control,” Olmstead said. “It was outside of everybody’s control. But look what we got to be a part of. Isn’t that the coolest thing ever? It was No. 1 versus No. 2 and our guys went out there and made a statement Thursday night. They played record setting volleyball for the rally scoring era. They put their heart and soul into it and left it all on the floor. They showed everybody who they were on their opponent’s court.
“We have a lot of gratitude that we got to play those matches. When I look back, that’s another jewel from this season. When that matchup occurred with our record at the time and their record at the time, there were two gyms that match had to be played at: Either the Smith Fieldhouse or in Hawaii. It was perfect and fitting.”