Gabi Garcia Fernandez becomes third Cougar to be named AVCA Player of the Year

(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.

BYU first-team All-American Gabi Garcia Fernandez was named the national Player of the Year, the American Volleyball Coaches Association announced on Thursday.

Garcia Fernandez is just the third Cougar to receive the accolade.

For the junior, it’s an honor he’s not accepting just for himself, but one he shares with all of his teammates.

It's also one he wants to include his home country in.

Garcia Fernandez is the first Puerto Rican to be named the Player of the Year.

“My heart is very full right now,” Garcia Fernandez said. “This is one of the awards that not everybody can win and especially not a Puerto Rican — the guy that is not the same, common American kid, to be honest. I’ve received a lot of love today from a lot, a lot of people that I haven’t heard from in a long time. Today has been a real grateful day in my life.”

Two days ago, Garcia Fernandez claimed his third-straight All-America recognition. The junior from San Juan, Puerto Rico was also crowned the national Player of the Year and a first-team All-American by the AVCA this year, the 2020 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Year and received his third-consecutive All-MPSF First Team selection.

The Cougars had six regular season matches left when the season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with a shortened season, Garcia Fernandez managed to break the BYU single-season aces record (56).

The junior averaged 5.46 points per set and .918 aces per set to lead the NCAA in both categories. Garcia Fernandez also ranked 11th in kills per set (4.00), 19th in blocks per set (1.00), 23rd in attacks per set (7.98) and 25th in hitting percentage (.343).

He was key in leading BYU to a 17-1 record and a No. 1 national ranking.

With stats like those, it would have been understandable if Garcia Fernandez would choose to try his hand at entering the professional ranks instead of coming back next season, but that's not the case.

Garcia Fernandez said he is “definitely” coming back because he has every intention of, first and foremost, finishing his degree in Latin American studies and playing his final collegiate season at BYU.

“And to win the national championship,” Garcia Fernandez said.

The Cougars haven’t won the national title since 2004, although they have played in the championship match three times since then — most recently in 2017.

This was the year the team believed they could win it all again. The thought started creeping into their minds early in the year, snowballing even bigger as the season went, but it wasn't until the Cougars played in Hawaii that it all clicked for them.

BYU went on to sweep then-No. 1 Hawaii in the first match and then took the Rainbow Warriors to five sets before eventually falling in the second match. Although they split the series, it still pushed BYU into the top ranking spot and inspired the team.

And it's something the Cougars will carry with them going into next season.

“When we went to Hawaii and we played that first night … we saw a shift in the team,” Garcia Fernandez said. “Not a lot of people could have seen it. People would have seen ‘ok, they played really good. They’re a really good team.’ But something in that first night got us thinking we could be way better than we are right now.”