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BYU men’s volleyball preview: Nothing new about high expectations in Provo

January 10, 2019
Brigham Young Cougars opposite hitter Gabi Garcia Fernandez (5) spikes the ball during a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinals match between Brigham Young University and the University of Southern California on Thursday, April 19, 2018, at Smith Fieldhouse in Provo. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

No one in the BYU men’s volleyball program takes their consistent excellence for granted.

The Cougars open the 2019 season as the No. 5 team in the country. Since 2013, BYU has been to the Final Four five times and the national title match three times. The expectations are always high, but coach Shawn Olmstead welcomes the challenge.

“In my coaching career I’ve been in programs where you don’t want to walk into a room and say, ‘We want to win the national championship,’” Olmstead said. “But with this team and this program, that has been the talk. These guys have been on the cusp of being in that match.

“We always talk about where we want to be in conference. If we can be in a good spot in our conference every year then we’re going to be in a good spot nationally. Realistically, we are in a position where we can talk about competing for a national championship. I think it’s important to be smart how we approach that.”

Where were we?

BYU won the regular-season MPSF title as well as the conference tournament to earn the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Championships. The Cougars played UCLA on the Bruins home floor in the Final Four, losing 3-1 to finish with a 22-7 record. It was the third straight Final Four berth for Olmstead.

The offseason brought a lot of changes. Assistants Luke Slabe and Jaylen Reyes left for the USA Women’s team and the Nebraska women’s team, respectively. In their place, Olmstead brings in former Cougar middle blocker Devin Young and promoted volunteer assistant Micah Naone to full-time.

A terrific group of seniors — setter Leo Durkin (3,282 career assists), outside hitter Brenden Sander (1,119 career kills) and middle blocker Price Jarman (369 career blocks) — have all moved on. The Cougars will miss not only their on-court abilities but leadership and experience as well. Between them, the trio started 265 matches the past four seasons and helped the Cougars to three Final Fours and two national championship matches.

Roster breakdown

Opposite hitter Gabi Garcia Fernandez had a marvelous freshman season, earning AVCA Newcomer of the Year and leading the Cougars with 387 kills and 51 service aces. He will take on more of a leadership role in 2019.

“We lost some great players and great leaders in Price, Leo and Brenden,” Fernandez said. “We need to fill those shoes up. I believe I can be a good example for those we want to follow. The freshmen look up to me because I was in their shoes last year.”

Junior Wil Stanley has played in 144 sets in his first two seasons at BYU — mainly as a serving specialist — and has the inside track to the starting role at setter. Another option is junior Cyrus Fa’alogo, who played setter in high school and club ball before moving to outside hitter.

There will be fierce competition for the two outside hitter spots. Junior Storm Fa’agata-Tufuga (194 kills) and Fa’alogo (73) return with the most experience. Freshman Davide Gardini, a 6-foot-9 high flyer from Italy, comes in with large expectations. The son of three-time Olympian Andrea Gardini has plenty of talent and international experience.

“The history there with his father in Italian volleyball and Davide has a high volleyball IQ,” Olmstead said. “The fans will be able to see that really quickly here.”

Fellow freshmen Kana’i Akana and Tim Baldwin are both Fab 50 honorees out of high school. A numbers of athletes — juniors Zach Eschenberg and Andrew Lincoln along with sophomores Alex Ah Sue and Charlie Siragusa — have all been in the program for several years and will also be in the mix.

The middle blocker spots should be strong. BYU returns 6-9 sophomore Filipe de Brito Ferreira — who was named to the Volleyball Magazine Freshman All-American team — and junior Miki Juahiainen (6-8). Olmstead said he was impressed with the work Ferreira and Juahiainen did during the offseason to get bigger and stronger. Those two returners will be backed by sophomore Branden Oberender and incoming freshman Max Pothier.

Zach Hendrickson won the starting libero job as a freshman and averaged 1.38 digs per set. He returns with senior Taylor Richards and freshman Jon Stanley backing him up.

The chase begins

The No. 5 ranking is simply a starting point for one of the top men’s volleyball programs in the country.

“All of that is more of a reflection of the program and the consistency of so many great players and coaches in the past,” Olmstead said. “It’s always good to be in the talks. In the end, we just want to be in position where months down the road we’re becoming the best team we can become. We’re definitely not there now. Nobody is in the country. That’s why we have these competition and matches. We’ll see how it unfolds. That’s what exciting about all sports.”

Like the rest of the men’s college volleyball world, the Cougars will be chasing defending national champion Long Beach State. The 49ers return their entire roster after finishing 28-1 last season and will host the 2019 NCAA Finals.

BYU was picked to finish second behind UCLA in the MPSF, which has gone five years without winning a national title.

“We know we’re a good team,” Fernandez said. “We know we have the talent and ability to get to the big spot. We want to concentrate on the things we can control. As a team, we want to make sure everybody is together on the same page. We’ll be focused on being a team and winning a natty.”

Up next

BYU opens the season on Thursday, hosting Midwestern powerhouse Ohio State. The seventh-ranked Buckeyes opened the season with home wins against Charleston (3-0) and Penn State (3-1).

After meeting Ball State in the Fieldhouse on Saturday, BYU travels east to play at Penn State.

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