BYU men’s volleyball one win away from national title

Lewis gives BYU some trouble, but Cougars beat Flyers 3-1 in Thursday’s NCAA tourney semifinal.

(Jay LaPrete | AP) BYU's Gabi Garcia Fernandez, center, celebrates after winning the first match against Lewis with teammates in the semifinals of the NCAA college men's volleyball tournament Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio.

Just over a year ago, BYU’s men’s volleyball season came to an end after playing Hawaii. On Saturday, the Cougars will face the Rainbow Warriors in their last match of the season.

The difference? Last season came to an end early due to the pandemic. This weekend, BYU will play in its fourth NCAA Tournament championship match since 2013.

BYU took a step closer to their goal on Thursday. While Lewis threatened to send BYU packing, the Cougars were able to adjust and outlasted the Flyers, beating them 3-1 in Thursday’s NCAA Tournament semifinal match in Columbus, Ohio.

The Cougars will meet Hawaii on Saturday at 6 p.m. MDT in search of their first national title since 2004.

And with that, BYU has come full circle.

“Those were the two last matches we played last year, and both teams have put together a great season and prepared their guys well,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “You can see that. On both sides of the net, those guys are both chomping at the bit to get another opportunity to play. So, here we are. It’s pretty exciting.”

The Cougars got off to a 10-4 lead, and continued to have a comfortable lead throughout the majority of the first set, until Lewis was able to respond and cut their deficit within one, 18-17. However, BYU never lost its lead and was able to close out the set 25-22.

Part of what hurt the Flyers in the first set was nine service errors. In comparison, BYU only committed four service errors in the first set.

In fact, on the Cougars’ third set point, the first set came to an end because Lewis committed a service error.

BYU’s lead in the second set wasn’t as quick to build as it was in the first set, but the Cougars continued to dominate and eventually got off to a 10-5 advantage. With back-to-back blocks, BYU put an end to a commanding performance with a 25-15 win in the second set.

The third set proved to have the most competitive start, with the Cougars struggling to pull away. In fact, Lewis saw its first lead of the match when an attack error by Davide Gardini gave the Flyers a 10-9 advantage.

Down 19-17, BYU called a timeout. But if Olmstead was looking to regroup his team to close out the set and complete the sweep, it didn’t happen.

The Flyers stayed alive by taking out BYU 28-26 in the third set.

While the Cougars were strong from the service line in the first two sets — one of the multiple ways they formed an attack — they struggled from that area in the third and fourth set. It was made most evident by Gabi Garcia Fernandez.

The senior is BYU’s strongest server, and came into the match four aces short of taking over the BYU record. But, after recording an ace in each of the first two sets, he committed multiple service errors in the latter half of the match.

Another area the Cougars struggled in, that allowed the Flyers to threaten to take the match, was at the net. BYU was held to .250 hitting in the third set.

However, Garcia Fernandez said the mistakes he and the team committed were a wake-up call, but it also served as a way for the senior to help in other areas of the game. And he did.

Along with his 17 kills, Garcia Fernandez had the second-most digs on the team (7) and two blocks.

“I’m not all about serving and I can do way more than that,” Garcia Fernandez said. “I contributed the best I can for my team, and when the time mattered, I put my serve in with good pressure. ... When the time is right, it will come.”

Gardini pointed out that, what he liked from his team throughout the match, was that they are aware of when they “are not clicking.” It wasn’t just one thing, but was a general feeling.

So, they decided to bring it back in the fourth set.

By the end of the match, BYU finished with 53 kills on 35.4% hitting, 30 digs, 10 blocks and seven aces.

“I just love to be a part of this group because of that,” Gardini said. “... It was just, maybe, a little bit of mojo that was missing, but the next set we got it back. So, I’m proud of the guys for sure.”