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BYU hungry for first national volleyball title since 2004 as NCAA tourney opens

The Cougars will make their NCAA Tournament debut in Thursday’s semifinal match against Lewis.

(BYU Photo) Gabi Garcia Fernandez, far left, goes for a kill during practice Wednesday. The Cougars will face Lewis in the NCAA Tournament semifinal on Thursday.

Sixteen years. That’s how long it’s been since BYU last won the NCAA men’s volleyball championship.

Because of BYU’s continued success over the last few years, it may not feel like it’s been that long. In fact, the Cougars have found themselves in the title match three times between 2013-17.

Last year, BYU was expected to get back to the championship match, but the pandemic put a halt to the 2020 season earlier than planned. Now, the Cougars are back on track to try to achieve their goal.

BYU will make its NCAA Tournament debut on Saturday, when the second-seeded Cougars take on Lewis in the semifinals in Columbus, Ohio.

The last time BYU won the national championship, coach Shawn Olmstead was a player on the Cougars’ squad and senior Zach Eschenberg was an 8-year-old watching the action. Now, the 25-year-old outside hitter is heading to the national tournament for the last time in his BYU career.

“I can’t even talk about just the drive for this program to go and grab a national championship,” Eschenberg said. “The number of years that, just me watching as a kid versus being on the team and it being right there and not being able to do it has just motivated, definitely, all of us.”

NCAA MEN’S VOLLEYBALL TOURNAMENT

BYU VS. LEWIS

At Columbus, Ohio

When • Thursday, 6 p.m. MT

Live stream • NCAA Live

The last time the Cougars played in the title match, at Ohio State, was when Eschenberg was a freshman. Add that motivation to having the tournament taken away from them a year ago, and the he says the team is more than ready.

“We know we can do it — we want it bad,” Eschenberg said. “There are a ton of good teams here, and so we know we’ve got to earn it, but it’s definitely a huge motivating factor for us, knowing that it’s been a while that we’ve been close and that we have the potential to do it.”

While BYU earned a double-bye, Lewis made it to the semifinals by sweeping Penn St. in the quarterfinals. (The Flyers earned a bye in the first round.)

The winner will face the winner of Hawaii-UC Santa Barbara on Saturday.

The Flyers are ranked nationally in both offensive and defensive stats: No. 2 in blocks per set (2.898), No. 3 in hitting percentage (.345), No. 4 in opponent hitting percentage (.204) and No. 5 in kills per set (13.10).

But the Cougars have their own arsenal. BYU is ranked second for hitting percentage (.348), third for blocks per set (2.784) and third in aces per set (1.76).

(BYU Photo) BYU men's volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead talks to the media during a NCAA Tournament press conference in Columbus, Ohio on Wednesday.

BYU middle blocker Felipe de Brito Ferreira leads the MPSF in hitting percentage (.451) and blocks per set (1.25) — which is also fifth-best nationally. Gabi Garcia Fernandez ranks fifth in the nation for aces per set (.541) and is four aces away from taking over the BYU all-time career aces record, which is currently held by Taylor Sander.

Olmstead said the game plan going into Thursday’s match will be to continue to play their game. The Cougars have had to be aggressive to get to this point of the season, and they will have to continue to be aggressive if they don’t want it to end just yet.

“I‘m pretty confident in our guys,” Olmstead said. “It’s going to be two great teams with game plans. And, like I said a few days ago, this entire tournament, I felt like it was going to be really, really competitive volleyball. And we saw that last night, both of those matches, and there’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to see that again tomorrow night in both the matches. So, it’s going to be exciting.”

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