Can BYU men’s volleyball return to national title match in 2018?

Cougars lost a lot of firepower after two-straight title game appearances

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Brenden Sander (5) BYU, hits the ball past Paul Bischoff (3) Stanford, in Volleyball action, BYU vs. Stanford, at the Smith Field House in Provo, Saturday, April 15, 2017.

Provo • Having lost to Ohio State in the past two NCAA men’s volleyball finals matches, 2016 at Penn State and 2017 on the Buckeyes’ home court in Columbus, there’s only one thing left for BYU to accomplish in 2018: Win it all.

But that’s easier said than done, because coach Shawn Olmstead’s third team is rebuilding, having lost 2017 stars Ben Patch, Jake Langlois, Joe Grosh and Tim Dobbert to graduation or professional volleyball pursuits. The Cougars, who went 26-5 last year, are picked third this season, behind No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Long Beach State.

“It is something good to talk about and something to get the season going,” Olmstead said of the preseason ranking. “But I don’t put too much into it because it goes off past seasons, or the last year. The reality is, no doubt, we lost some big contributors for us, and our program.”

The season gets going Friday as No. 3 BYU hosts No. 13 Loyola of Chicago, the 2014 and 2015 NCAA champion, at 7 p.m. at Smith Fieldhouse. The Cougars will take on No. 6 Lewis on Saturday at 7 p.m.

The Cougars will be smaller, but quicker and scrappier, said setter Leo Durkin, who joins senior libero Erik Sikes, senior outside hitter Brenden Sander and senior middle blocker Price Jarman as a returning starter. Off the Block, a website devoted to college volleyball, named Sander a preseason first-team All-American and Durkin and Jarman second-teamers.

“There are some elements of last year that I think just won’t be a part of this team,” Durkin said. “But there are some facets of this team that we can absolutely capitalize on. One is our speed. We are going to be a lot faster (on) offense. And I think also for us, BYU, it comes down to serve and pass. That is going to be a thing we are focused on day-in and day-out in the gym.”

BYU has eight newcomers, most notably freshman Gabi Garcia Fernandez, a 6-foot-7 opposite hitter from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Fernandez signed with BYU late after the school he originally signed with dropped men’s volleyball.

“He is a big, strong kid and he’s got a good arm and a really good serve,” Olmstead said. “There is going to be a learning curve at this level, but the upside with him is really, really high.”

Coaches are also excited about Felipe de Brito Ferriera, from Brazil, and Zach Hendrickson, a defensive specialist from Kentucky.

“We have got guys who can jump and be physical, for sure,” Olmstead said. “But we don’t have that size at the pins like we’ve had. So we’ve had to get better behind the block, and I think we have made major strides there. We are excited to see that against someone else.”

More will be asked of several players who saw limited action last year, middle blockers Miki Jauhiainen of Finland and Christian Rupert of Pennsylvania, plus outside hitters Storm Fa’agata-Tufuga, Tanner Skabelund and Zach Eschenberg. Sophomore Will Stanley, a serving specialist last season, also returns.

“The guys this year are awesome and absolutely love volleyball,” Durkin said. “We have a bunch of court rats who are here every day. … The dynamic is we are going to be a lot scrappier this year.”

Opening weekend<br>At Smith Fieldhouse, Provo<br>Friday’s Matches<br>UC Irvine vs. No. 6 Lewis, 4:30 p.m.<br>No. 3 BYU vs. No. 13 Loyola Chicago, 7 p.m. (BYUtv)<br>Saturday’s Matches<br>No. 13 Loyola Chicago vs. UC Irvine, 4:30 p.m.<br>No. 3 BYU vs. No. 6 Lewis, 7 p.m.

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