Provo • There was a time during Saturday night’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation men’s volleyball championship match when it looked like the visiting UCLA Bruins were on their way to a sweep of the Cougars in front of more than 3,000 shell-shocked BYU fans.
UCLA won the first set 25-17 and was ahead 13-11 in the second set after a kill by talented senior Jake Arnitz. About that time, BYU seniors Leo Durkin, Brenden Sander and Price Jarman gathered their teammates together and reminded them that they were playing at home, and needed to garner what Durkin called “the free energy.”
Using that excitement and enthusiasm from the fans, who had been sitting on their hands just waiting for something to cheer about until freshman Gabi Garcia Fernandez led a 4-0 run with a kill, a block and a service ace, the Cougars rallied to take the MPSF tournament title.
The scores were 17-25, 25-21, 25-18 and 25-21 as BYU advanced to the NCAA Tournament the first week of May for the third straight year by grabbing the league’s automatic bid. UCLA, which will host the NCAAs at Pauley Pavilion, awaits Sunday’s 11 a.m. MDT selection show to learn its fate, but will likely still get the No. 3 or No. 4 seed.
BYU winning Saturday was huge, however, because the top two seeds earn byes to the semifinals.
“We talked to the guys and told them, ‘when you are in an environment like this — I call it free energy — with the excitement of being in a volleyball match, you use it,’” Durkin said of the turnaround in the second set. “I thought it was important to emphasize to the guys that we don’t necessarily need to bring anything extra. We just need to hone in on the task at hand and be dialed in and focused.”
The Cougars improved to 22-6, while UCLA fell to 24-7.
“An exciting match to be a part of,” said BYU coach Shawn Olmstead. “UCLA battled, for sure. It was a hard-fought volleyball match. More than anything, I am excited for our team. You see these guys every day interact with their teammates at practice. There is a reason we were able to go out and respond after losing the first set like we did, 25-17. To win the MPSF championship here in front of your home fans, that’s pretty big time for these kids and I am super proud of them.”
Sander led the way with 18 kills and a .485 hitting percentage and earned tournament MVP honors. Garcia Fernandez added 12 kills and two aces and made the all-tournament team along with Durkin, who had 37 assists.
Sander said the key to his late-match heroics was trusting his teammates.
“I fully trust Leo to throw me the ball at the right spots,” said Sander, who moved into No. 5 on BYU’s career kills list and No. 2 on its career aces list. “Sometimes we miss, but hey, who is perfect, right?”
Garcia Fernandez, from Puerto Rico, finished off the second set with his sixth kill, and BYU rolled from there.
“Yeah, I mean, that kid is capable of some absolutely unbelievable things,” Jarman said of Garcia Fernandez. “And we are lucky to have him as a teammate.”
Before the Cougar comeback, UCLA had won four straight sets over BYU dating to a 3-0 sweep in Los Angeles two weeks ago.