Every single day — even before practice — we would serve and pass…so I think that will kind of help us for this game. —BYU senior Kiril Meretev
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The BYU men's volleyball team learned the lesson the hard way a year ago in the NCAA championship match, much like Penn State learned it during Thursday's semifinal round — Ohio State's serving, and particularly that of Nicolas Szerszen, can prove absolutely devastating.
As Cougar players fielded questions from the media Friday, prior to meeting the Buckeyes for the NCAA championship on Saturday, they emphasized the importance of both receiving and passing effectively. It's been something the Cougar players have been focused on since that surprising straight-set loss to the Buckeyes last season, although they haven't always discussed it.
“Even after the whole summer, no one was talking about the game,” said BYU senior Kiril Meretev. “We were really quiet about it and then through the year we’ve just worked as hard as we can to get here to the same spot.”
A lot of the work has dealt with the Cougars' ability to both receive and pass the ball effectively — something they didn't do well at all at this time last year.
Last year the Cougars started out OK against the Buckeyes, narrowly losing the first set 32-30 and then the second 25-23 before becoming completely overwhelmed by Ohio State's serve in the third. The Buckeyes return just about everyone off of last year's team including Szerszen and also can overwhelm an opponent as Hawaii learned in its loss on Thursday.
“I think it just demoralizes teams, that they don’t even have a chance to get to the second and third touch, let alone even the first touch and trying to keep the ball in play,” said Ohio State coach Pete Hanson. “That’s a pretty amazing weapon.”
For Joe Grosh, who experienced firsthand what Szerszen and the rest can do, it was hard to take.
“It was kind of a shock, losing last year,” Grosh said. “We came in and I think we were expecting to put up a good fight and play to win. But we just came out ... it just didn’t go our way.”
As mentioned, the Cougars have been diligent in preparing for what's to come on Saturday.
"We’ve been practicing serve and pass the whole year,” Meretev said. “Every single day — even before practice — we would serve and pass so I think that will kind of help us for this game.”
The Cougars aren't the only ones who think they're better prepared this time around. After pouring over film, Ohio State middle blocker Blake Leeson believes BYU may pose a bigger challenge this time around.
“They definitely attack the ball out-of-system more than they did last year,” Leeson observed. “They’re better in two-pass and one-pass situations than they were last year. So that’s definitely something we’ll have to focus on.”
Saturday's match starts at 7 p.m. EDT and will be televised live on ESPN2. It will be held on Ohio State's home court of St. John Arena, providing a rare advantage for a team playing for an NCAA championship.
It's the sort of venue the Cougars have become accustomed to in some ways, but unusual in others.
“This is probably going to be an away match for us where maybe we don’t have more BYU fans,” Olmstead said. “I don’t think that’s going to be possible here on their home court. But again, the kids understand the setting.”
Indeed the Cougars almost always enjoy a friendly environment, even away from home, as BYU fans from around the country often outnumber the fans of the home team. Olmstead expressed a lot of gratitude for the fans of the Cougar program on Friday, noting it's been a big help to the players and their overall play.
For the players, they feel prepared for what they'll face Saturday.
“Even though it’s going to be a hostile environment, we’ve played in front of huge crowds all year long and a lot of us are extremely used to it,” Grosh said. “The best we can do is just go out and play our game and not worry about the crowd and what they’re saying to us.”