BYU men’s volleyball team looks like a national title contender

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) BYU’s Gabi Garcia Fernandez hits the ball as the Cougars face the Lewis Flyers at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018.

Provo • Coach Shawn Olmstead would never label 2019 as a failure, but it wasn’t a typical BYU men’s volleyball season. Riddled with injuries, the Cougars finished with a 13-12 record.
BYU had made it to the Final Four the year prior and played in the championship game the previous two seasons, but didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament in 2019.
Now, it seems, BYU has bounced back — even if Olmstead won’t say it just yet. The Cougars (6-0) are off to their best start since going 12-0 at the beginning of the 2008 season.
“It’s so early (in the season) and I don’t ever like to get ahead of the horses,” Olmstead said. “We’ve got a lot of area to improve upon — that’s the exciting thing and that’s what we keep talking to these guys about. They’re not complacent. They’ve been in the gym, we haven’t taken a day off other than Sundays, so that’s a good thing about these guys.”
Next, No. 2 BYU will next face No. 5 UC Irvine on the road Wednesday and Friday. The Anteaters are the fourth ranked opponent the Cougars will have faced thus far. BYU beat then-No. 11 Loyola Chicago 3-1 in the season opener Jan. 3, beat then-No. 6 Lewis 3-1 the following day, and swept then-No. 15 Penn State twice at the Smith Fieldhouse Jan. 10 and 11.
Besides dealing with injuries last season, the biggest blow being the ankle injury of setter Wil Stanley, the Cougars were also relatively young. The team lost the leadership of Brenden Sander, Price Jarman and Leo Durkin.
“I see it as a learning experience,” junior opposite hitter Gabi Garcia Fernandez said. “In order to become great in sports, you need to have your downs. Last year, we lost a lot of guys … all captains in the team, that kept the team together. Other people like me (and) Felipe (de Brito Ferreira) had to take those roles and then we had to bring the new guys in.”
One of the newcomers Garcia Fernandez helped was outside hitter Davide Gardini, an international product from Italy who had to learn the American system. The team also had to help Brody Earnest come in midway through the season to take over for Stanley.

But all the adversity the team faced last year has helped the Cougars this season. It also helped that after that rough 2019 season, the team only graduated one player — Taylor Richards.
“Now, everybody’s got experience," Garcia Fernandez said. "Everybody came back this year. And now it’s like, ‘ok our team is ready. Lets go.’”
Gardini said the 2019 season weighed heavily on the team, but they took full responsibility for their results. And it also inspired the group to work harder throughout the offseason to get ready for the 2020 season.
For Gardini, his goal was to become the best on the team and go from there. Gardini doesn’t think he’ll reach that goal any time soon, he’s just trying to improve as much as he can.
“I think once season started we were all ready to go because of that,” Gardini said. “We knew we worked hard, so we wanted to show that we're ready and we can do great things.”
Either way, win or lose, Olmstead hopes his team is able to learn and having to deal with adversity last year helped in that regard.
“They’ve grown from that and matured,” Olmstead said. “But it’s credit to those guys really going, ‘OK, you know what we went through? We can do this better.' ”
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