BYU men’s volleyball team punches its ticket to the NCAA Tournament

The Cougars swept Pepperdine 3-0 in the MPSF final to advance to the tourney for the first time since 2018.

(Jaren Wilkey|BYU Photo) Gabi Garcia Fernandez, center, talks to his teammates during a timeout during the MPSF Championship game against Pepperdine on Saturday, April 24, 2021.

There’s no question about it, BYU is back in the Big Dance.

The Cougars made easy work of Pepperdine in the MPSF Tournament final on Saturday, sweeping the Waves to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It is BYU’s first trip to the NCAA tourney since 2018.

BYU was set to return last year, but the pandemic forced the 2020 season to end early. In 2019, the Cougars failed to punch their ticket.

While BYU knows it will compete for the national title, the Cougars will have to wait until Sunday’s Selection Show to see where they fall on the bracket and learn who their first opponent is.

Unlike Pepperdine, who will be looking to get an at-large bid, the Cougars, won’t be sweating it out. Prior to the MPSF Tournament, BYU was ranked second in the nation. But could they make an argument for a No. 1 seed?

Senior Zach Eschenberg doesn’t think that’s necessary.

“If anything, I feel like we’ve just worked really hard,” Eschenberg said. “I know we’ve definitely had moments where we haven’t play our volleyball — I know that we can keep getting better. But honestly, I feel like we’re a team that’s worked really hard and we’ve tried to do well. I feel like we’ve done our part ... so, I don’t know if I can make a case for No. 1, but I’m just glad we get to go to the tournament.”

The first set of the title match was the closest of the night. Tied at 19, the teams traded points until they were tied at 23. Then, BYU closed it out with two consecutive points.

After the opening set, the wins came by even easier for BYU.

The Cougars opened up the second set on a 8-0 run, eventually winning 25-15. BYU closed out the match with a 25-19 victory in the third set.

A large part of the win came through BYU’s defense at the net. The Cougars recorded a total of 13 blocks. Pepperdine: zero.

“I think they got us off the net,” Pepperdine coach David Hunt said. “... Obviously, they’re big guys at the net, so we got to deal with that. And any time you have to deal with that over and over, it’s going to be a long night for you.”

While the Waves attacked more than their opponent, the Cougars were more efficient. BYU hit 47.1% while Pepperdine only managed 18.5%.

Senior Gabi Garcia Fernandez also played a key role in the Cougars’ offense, making three of BYU’s four service aces.

BYU coach Shawn Olmstead considers Garcia Fernandez the team’s “game changer.”

“When he goes back to the service line, he can impact the set, the match,” Olmstead said. “And he did that.”

Now that BYU is done hosting the MPSF Tournament, the Cougars will begin their hunt for their first national title since 2004. However, the MPSF title is a sweet one for Olmstead.

Since taking the helm in 2015, Olmstead had previously led the Cougars to two MPSF Tournament championships in 2016 and 2018. But the 2021 title has added meaning due to what has transpired over the last year.

“Each championship is unique, and it’s hard to compare here and there, but I think it’s just because a culmination of a few things that are our things that we’ll hold onto,” “But also looking at what these guys have gone through, looking at what this year was — the uncertainty. ... That’s a tough thing to just focus and try to build and work towards something that for so long was not there.”