BYU’s men’s volleyball team was swept at home by UC Santa Barbara exactly three months ago. The Cougars’ record dropped to a mediocre 5-4, and their chances of getting back to the NCAA Tournament looked bleak.
Coach Shawn Olmstead turned to his seniors — setter Leo Durkin, middle blocker Price Jarman and outside hitter Brenden Sander — and asked them to pull the talented but inconsistent team out of its malaise.
The Cougars swept the Gauchos the following night to begin a 13-match winning streak and eventually won the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular-season and conference tournament titles.
They now are in the NCAA men’s volleyball tournament’s Final Four, and Olmstead is asking those same seniors to use the experience they gained the past two years when they made it to the championship match in hostile territory. The Cougars will meet homestanding UCLA at 8:30 p.m. MDT Thursday at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.
“The guys have been comfortable anywhere that they have played,” Olmstead said. “They have really embraced that. That’s kinda been our team the last few years.”
The second-seeded Cougars will tangle with the third-seeded Bruins for the fourth time this season in a semifinal match. BYU got a bye into the semifinals, while UCLA dumped Harvard 3-1 in a first-round match Tuesday night.
“We’re expecting another slugfest,” Durkin said.
They also are hoping for a strong contingent of BYU fans to offset UCLA’s home-court advantage.
The Cougars have defeated UCLA twice — 3-0 on March 3 in Provo in a regular-season match and 3-1 on April 21 in the MPSF tournament championship match. UCLA swept BYU in the regular-season finale April 7 at Pauley.
“Every time we get a chance to go to the Final Four, which for us seniors is a few times, it is an honor and we are excited about it,” Jarman said. “We haven’t had the result we wanted in years past, so we are hoping to be able to change that this year.”
The Cougars actually have thrived in the semifinals, beating Long Beach State 3-1 at Penn State in 2016 and LBSU 3-0 at Ohio State last year. It’s the championship match that has tripped them up.
“The reality is we have lost the last two national championships. We know it. We don’t sit there and talk about it every day,” Olmstead said. “There are some things we can do to try to make our team better as we go into it again. We really feel like the things we have focused on, we have been able to improve, definitely.”
The Cougars practice and play matches in the cozy Smith Fieldhouse, but they practiced several times in the spacious Marriott Center before leaving Tuesday for Los Angeles to prepare for playing in Pauley, which is where the Bruins men’s and women’s basketball teams play.
“It is just good for us to get a different look,” Olmstead said. “We are going to be on the road anyway, so we don’t mind practicing and getting reps in different gyms.”
Two-time defending national champion Ohio State eked past UC Irvine 3-2 on Tuesday and will face top-seeded LBSU in Thursday’s other semifinal. The semifinal winners will meet at 5 p.m. MDT Saturday. The match will be televised by ESPNU.
MEN’S VOLLEYBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS
Where • Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles
Thursday’s semifinal matches
6 p.m. (MDT) • No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 1 Long Beach State
8:30 p.m. MDT • No. 2 BYU vs. No. 3 UCLA
Saturday’s championship match
5 p.m. MDT • Semifinal winners