Throughout the entire 2021 season, BYU men’s volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead has reflected on the past year and how fortunate the Cougars were to be able to play a season in spite of the pandemic. He wasn’t even upset about the 2020 season being cut short — there were bigger issues than playing volleyball.
But now BYU (20-3) finds itself right where it was looking to go a year ago: in the NCAA Championship match.
The second-seeded Cougars will face top-seeded Hawaii (16-1) at 6 p.m. MDT on Saturday, in Columbus, Ohio.
“All we wanted this year was to come back,” junior outside hitter Davide Gardini said. “And we knew that after the season ended last year, we were going to be able to come back and have as good of a season. So, we worked hard for that.”
Saturday’s championship appearance will be the fourth time since 2013 that the Cougars play in the title match. BYU is looking to win its first national title since 2004 — back when Olmstead was a player on the team.
NCAA MEN’S VOLLEYBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
BYU VS. HAWAII
At Columbus, Ohio
When • Saturday, 6 p.m. MT
TV • ESPNU
Following their program third national title in 2004, the Cougars went on a bit of a dry spell. BYU didn’t compete in the NCAA Tournament for the next eight consecutive years.
It wasn’t until 2013 that the BYU program saw a resurgence. Since then, the Cougars have only missed two NCAA Tournaments.
“I think it’s going to be something that we waited for,” Gardini said. “It’s been a long — a long — offseason last year.”
The opportunity to win a national title was enough to bring back last year’s seniors. Immediately after getting the green light from the NCAA, Zach Eschenberg, Wil Stanley and Miki Jauhiainen announced they’d be coming back.
Add in the senior talent of this year, which includes Gabi Garcia Fernandez and Felipe de Brito Ferreira, and the Cougars are really chomping at the bit to bring the natty home to Provo — especially because a majority of those guys have played in a championship game before.
In Thursday’s semifinal, Lewis threatened to take away that opportunity from BYU — beating the Cougars in the third set and playing a competitive fourth set. But BYU was able to adjust and recover in order to advance.
“In these moments, you’re just happy for these guys,” Olmstead said. “In athletics you’re going to play long enough that you’re going to be able to celebrate some wonderful wins and also have to kind of battle through tough losses. So, tonight, [I’m] just proud of the guys for sticking with it.”
Last year, just before the season got shut down, BYU split the series with Hawaii. It was the first loss of the season for both teams.
It’s only fair to expect the Cougars and Rainbow Warriors will put up a competitive match on Saturday.
Hawaii is ranked first in the nation in kills per set (13.73) and has the best hitting percentage (.359), although BYU is closely behind. On the defensive side of the ball, the Rainbow Warriors rank just behind the Cougars in blocks per set.
Although there is plenty of experience being at this level within the team, Olmstead said each championship game is different, just as every team is different.
But Olmstead knows his team understands what’s on the line this time.
“There’s been a lot of fantastic volleyball players that have come through our school — Olympians, gold medalists, national champions,” Olmstead said. “These guys, we talk about it all the time — it’s their story in their book. It’s continuing to be writen, so that’s pretty cool. We kind of talk about that here we are in the final chapters and what’s our book going to tell and what’s it going to say.”