COLUMBUS, Ohio — NCAA tournaments often provide opportunities for programs to match up with unfamiliar opponents from around the country, but that certainly won't be the case with the BYU men's volleyball team on Thursday when it squares off against Long Beach State.
The two programs share a rich history and have become familiar with one another through playing in the same MPSF conference and even in the NCAA tournament a year ago. Through all the matchups the teams have gained a mutual respect that will hold throughout Thursday's NCAA tournament semifinal, which starts at 6 p.m. EDT and will be carried live by ncaa.com.
“We’ve done well against these guys, and both have had success against one another this season,” said BYU coach Shawn Olmstead. “Unfortunately we couldn’t compete with them in the MPSF championship like we would have liked, but hey, we get an opportunity right now, so it’s exciting.”
The last time out against the 49ers watched the Cougars get a bit shocked on their home court, losing in straight sets to the eventual MPSF champion. The night before it was a different story, with the Cougars taking a thrilling 5-set win, which was preceded by BYU's 4-set win in the NCAA Tournament semifinal round exactly a year ago Thursday.
“It’s just fun to play a team like Long Beach who is going to pose a new challenge for us every single time and a challenge for us to get better,” said BYU junior opposite hitter Ben Patch.
The challenge presented by Long Beach will be quite a bit different than the one posed by Barton during the play-in game on Tuesday, which the Cougars took easily — winning in straight sets. Long Beach presents four first-team All-Americans, which are TJ DeFalco, Amir Lugo-Rodriguez, Andrew Sato and Josh Tuaniga. BYU meanwhile, has just one this year in Jake Langlois.
Last year it was a little different with BYU's Brenden Sander and Ben Patch receiving the distinction of first-team All-American's with DeFalco receiving the same honor. Both Patch and Sander return this season but were unable to repeat their first-team status in large part due to some injury issues.
“A lot of the pieces are similar. They have faces that are similar and they still do some of their things really well,” observed Long Beach coach Alan Knipe of the Cougars this year. “Obviously they’ve dealt with some adversity this year — as have other teams in our league and they haven’t been able to put out the same lineup, and that’s probably the biggest thing.”
Meanwhile, Long Beach has been as impressive as anyone this season, holding down the No. 1-ranking for most of the season while entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed. For the Cougars, they know they'll have to be at their best to get by the 49ers come Thursday, yet are approaching the match in much of the same way they did in preparing for Barton.
“I don’t know if it’s a different approach at all,” Patch said. “We respect every team that we play and approach it with the right mindset.”
While Long Beach may hold a slight edge on paper, Thursday's match marks the first time it's played in nearly two weeks.
Meanwhile the Cougars have become very familiar with the Ohio State court, arriving and practicing Monday in preparation for Tuesday's match against the Bulldogs, which may prove an advantage.
“For us, I feel like it’s always better to get into a gym that you’re not familiar with and play,” Langlois said. “We get four days of practice in a gym that any of us haven’t played in. So it’s an advantage.”
Indeed the Cougars are confident going in, for a number of reasons despite recent results, with Olmstead not varying his message to the team as it prepares.
“The message is always going to be the same — these guys can compete, and they know that,” Olmstead said. “I felt that whatever approach we had to that night, we can learn from that. These guys understand how good that team is, but they’re confident in themselves. They know how good they are and that’s what gives me confidence as a coach.”