Provo • The BYU men’s volleyball team took off running an never looked back, getting off to the second best start in program history (17-1). But then a kill came flying out of nowhere that couldn’t be blocked and no libero could dig or player save.
The ongoing coronavirus outbreak caused the sports world, which included BYU athletics, to come to a screeching halt a week ago. The Cougars were minutes from boarding their flight out to California to start the second half of MPSF play when coach Shawn Olmstead found out the news.
“We were 10 minutes away from boarding a plane — our bags were boarded on a plane,” Olmstead said. “We had to physically get them taken off the plane, ask Delta to go remove all 30 of our bags. So, we were that close to being on a plane to Palo Alto.”
At first, there was uncertainty about how everything would play out. Would games just be suspended? Would games pick right back up after a couple of weeks?
But then it became clear that all collegiate sports would be canceled for the remainder of the school year.
“It was tough for our guys, for sure,” Olmstead said. “I think we've been able to process that, hey, it's a pride that we take from this season that we had, is something that we can forever hold on to.”
If there’s any consolation for the way the season ended, at least the Cougars finished the season on top.
BYU traveled to Honolulu for what turned out to be the last two matches of the season March 5-6. The Cougars swept then-No. 1 Hawaii in the first match and took the Rainbow Warriors to five sets in the second match before suffering their first loss of the season. The split in the islands was strong enough to propel BYU to the top of the national rankings.
The group went from experiencing their highest of highs in Honolulu, to feeling the lowest of lows when their season was canceled. But Olmstead is grateful his team at least got to play against Hawaii before everything came to a stop.
“Man, look what we got to be a part of,” Olmstead said. “Isn't that the coolest thing ever? And it's amazing that it was technically two of the last volleyball matches to be played right before this all occurred. … It was No. 1 against No. 2. Our guys went out there and made a statement Thursday night, played record-setting volleyball for the rally scoring era, put their heart and soul and left it on the floor. They did it that night. They showed everybody who they were on an opponent's court, away match.”
And those weren’t the only big matches the Cougars played.
BYU took on a total of nine ranked opponents before the season was canceled. The Cougars had one more ranked opponent left in the schedule — Stanford — the match they were about to head out to.
“It's awesome because you look at our resume, and you look at the scheduling and timing of everything, and we really got to go against more of the best teams than everybody else,” Olmstead said. “And we can take some pride and satisfaction in that. We went against the toughest, we had a great record against the toughest, but beyond that there;s so much more to play for that nobody can really predict exactly where this was going to go.”
While the NCAA has already announced they will be granting relief to spring athletes who would like to return another year, there's still a lot to sort through.
The Cougars have five seniors on the roster: setter Wil Stanley, middle blocker Miki Jauhiainen and outside hitters Zach Eschenberg, Cyrus Fa'alogo and Andrew Lincoln. It is still unclear who, if any, will return next year for another chance (though Stanley did post on his Twitter that he would like to).
Either way, the Cougars have plenty of underclassmen talent that they should be able to build off this shortened season next year.
“What a great group of guys that we’ve had that have been able to establish themselves as some of the best players in the country this year,” Olmstead said. “Each one of our players on the court can say that, in their respective positions. We’ve got guys that can compete for national awards, et cetera. I’m happy for them. I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the season we’ve had thus far. And in those moments, they’ll be able to always hold on to what they had as a team, what they had as a group, that culture that they built together with our coaching staff, the trust they put in each other. That’s a big deal.”