PROVO — The BYU men's volleyball team presents a significant new look this season, yet hopes to build on the same success it has enjoyed for quite some time and particularly over the past 3-4 years.
The Cougars have advanced to the NCAA Tournament Final Four in each of the past three seasons and begin this season ranked No. 5 nationally despite the loss of significant leaders like outside hitter Brenden Sander, middle blocker Price Jarman and setter Leo Durkin.
"It's going to be a different look for the fans because of the consistency we've had with guys like Leo, Price and Bren(den) for so many years," said BYU coach Shawn Olmstead. "So it's going to be some returning faces and some new ones. So it's pretty exciting."
The return of Gabi Garcia Fernandez likely ranks high on the reasons for Olmstead's excitement. Last season the 6-foot-7 Puerto Rican stormed on to the scene as a first-year player, earning himself National Newcomer of the Year honors while playing a big role within the Cougars' offensive attack.
It's reasonable to expect even bigger strides from his opposite hitter position during Fernandez's second season. Central to taking on a bigger role is assuming a lot of the leadership mantel left vacant with the departure of Sander, Durkin and Jarman.
"Personally I just want to work on making my team better," Fernandez said. "Mostly it's making my teammates better and the freshmen to help feel at home, much like they did with me last year."
BYU's roster includes eight freshmen, but none more notable than 6-9 outside hitter Davide Gardini, who arrived in Provo straight from Italy with a wealth of experience under his belt, making comparisons between himself and Fernandez in 2018 easy to make.
"Davide brings some international experience and some swagger that I like," Olmstead said. "He's from a volleyball family and he comes in with a high volleyball IQ."
Others looked to help out at the outside hitter and opposite hitter positions are 6-3 junior Storm Fa'agata-Tufuga, 6-4 junior Cyrus Fa'alogo and 6-7 junior Andrew Lincoln.
A position of strength appears to be at middle blocker, led by 6-9 Brazilian sophomore Felipe de Brito Ferreira and 6-8 junior Miki Jauhiainen, who hails from Finland.
"All of them worked extremely hard over the summer," Olmstead said of his middle blockers. "Miki especially put on some good weight and got stronger...So those guys have a lot of experience."
At libero, Olmstead likes the play of sophomore Zach Hendrickson from a season ago and will likely rely on him throughout this coming year.
Perhaps the most significant replacement will be that of Wil Stanley who will be asked to fill the big shoes left by Durkin, a player whose leadership and contributions were relied on heavily over the past several seasons. The good news is the 6-4 Hawaiian doesn't come in with a blank résumé.
"He's doing a great job and he's gotten reps in the past," Olmstead said. "He has good experience and he's been tutored well by Leo in that role. So he's excited to take the reins and take the lead as kind of the quarterback of the team."
As always expectations run high for a team that has come just short of winning a national championship in recent years.15 comments on this story
"These guys have been on the cusp of (a national championship) and they've been in that match," Olmstead said. "We always talk about where we want to be in conference (play) and if we can get in a good spot in our conference every year, then we're going to be in a good spot nationally...But we need to be smart in how we approach that."
The Cougars begin play this Thursday taking on No. 7 Ohio State, the same team that defeated them in the national championship match in both 2016 and 2017. The match begins at 7 p.m. MST. BYU will play six non-conference games before beginning MPSF Conference play taking on Pepperdine on Feb. 6.