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Jaren Wilkey/BYU
BYU's Brenden Sander goes up for a spike.
He's done a remarkable job. He doesn't get the pub that everyone else gets, at times, but Leo is the backbone of this team. —BYU coach Shawn Olmstead

PROVO — BYU's up-and-down men's volleyball season is about to hit the home stretch, with players and coaches confident things are trending upward. In the middle of it all, helping lead the way for the No. 4-ranked Cougars is senior setter Leo Durkin, who has played a central role in his team's postseason runs over the last two years and into his final season.

Durkin will be relied on heavily when the Cougars begin postseason play this season, beginning with the MPSF Conference tournament, which begins Thursday at the Smith Fieldhouse. First up for BYU (20-6, 10-2 MPSF) will be a match against USC (8-19, 3-9 MPSF) by virtue of the Trojans upsetting Pepperdine in the first round. The Cougars earned a first round bye by virtue of finishing on top of the MPSF season standings.

As mentioned, the Cougars' season has seen plenty of highs and lows, despite an otherwise impressive 20-6 mark. Slow starts have been a major area of concern throughout, coupled with some inconsistent play and some head-scratching losses.

One area that has remained consistent, however, is the play of Durkin, and BYU coach Shawn Olmstead heaped praise on him when asked of his overall influence on the team.

"He's done a remarkable job," Olmstead said of his 6-foot-4 setter's role this season. "He doesn't get the pub that everyone else gets, at times, but Leo is the backbone of this team."

Durkin's play on the court gives credence to Olmstead's praise, although the senior's biggest influence may be during practices, film sessions and with the in-game coaching required of him. Taking on such a role can be a challenge, but given Durkin's easy-going and likable nature, it's come easily, with his teammates responding well.

Durkin is so easy-going and likable that Olmstead has elected to spend time with him off the court.

"I've gone on double-dates with him and his wife because I enjoy him so much," Olmstead said. "He makes me want to be a better person. That's the kind of person he is."

BYU's young stars — players like standout freshmen Gabi Garcia Fernandez and Felipe de Brito Ferreira — have largely benefitted from Durkin's presence and leadership.

"The position of setter — guys see you between every point," Durkin said. "So it's important to display that positive body language and to make sure I'm communicating with them and keeping their energy high."

Durkin has to be aware of every situation and let his teammates know what's coming. Given his experience of playing as BYU's primary setter the past three seasons, on top of quality coaching from Olmstead and assistants such as Jaylen Reyes, Durkin is able to make right calls and direct the team effectively.

Durkin's role will become more pronounced on Thursday, with the goal of a national championship coming sharply into focus. Should the Cougars win the MPSF tournament, they'll receive an automatic bid to the eight-team NCAA championships, while standing a good chance of receiving one of the two at-large bids should they fall short.

A lot of variables will come into play during conference tournaments regarding who receives those at-large bids.

"We've got to win matches," Olmstead said. "We have not looked (at the scenarios) because if we start looking and talking about that, the kids' ears are going to perk up. … I don't feel comfortable with everything going around nationally. I can never predict exactly what's going to unfold."

For Durkin, this will be his final run on the team after achieving runner-up status in the NCAA championships over the past two seasons. That fact isn't lost on him, and he aims to go out playing at his top level.

"This is the time to be playing my most confident, collected and best volleyball," Durkin said. "Whether that's being the best teammate I can be, or being the most focused I can be here in practice, and help guys be more cohesive as a group. Because it's playoff time."

BYU's match versus USC will start at 7 p.m. MDT on Thursday and will be televised live on BYUtv. UCLA will take on Concordia Irvine at 4:30 MDT, with the winner of both matches squaring off for the MPSF championship on Saturday.

Twitter: @BrandonCGurney