PROVO — Volleyball is almost always intense and raucous inside the Smith Fieldhouse, and if Thursday night's season-opener for the No. 5-ranked BYU men's volleyball team is any indication, the rich atmosphere will continue throughout 2019.
The Cougars went up against No. 7 Ohio State on Thursday and used a big rally midway through the third set to score a hard-earned straight-set win (25-20, 25-23, 27-25) with the home crowd proving loud throughout.
Sophomore Gabi Garcia Fernandez led the way for the Cougars, scoring a team-high 15 kills, but it was freshman Davide Gardini who the team leaned on late to secure the win. Gardini, who comes to BYU from Italy, scored the match-winning kill, displaying a level of play uncommon for most first-year players.
"It was unbelievable," Gardini said of scoring match point in front of 4,277 fans. "I was expecting the ball, so when I hit it I was just feeling it."
A freshman expecting the ball in that type of situation isn't typical, but as mentioned, Gardini is hardly your typical freshman. The 6-foot-9 outside hitter signed with BYU holding a lot of international playing experience which attest to his 13 kills on a .417 hitting percentage in his first-ever collegiate volleyball match.
"You see that he's very comfortable out there," said BYU coach Shawn Olmstead. "That goes to his upbringing and he's been around the sport probably more than all of us at a very high level. So he's very comfortable in those situations."
Also feeling comfortable for much of the match, much to Olmstead's consternation, was Ohio State's 6-foot-10 opposite hitter Jake Hanes, who led all players with 23 kills on a .405 hitting percentage. While good throughout, Hanes took charge in a big way in the third set, getting the Buckeyes off to a 17-13 lead while showing a lot of emotion.
After a timeout, the Cougars were able to rally and reel off seven straight points to forge a 20-17 lead heading down the stretch. A key moment in the run came with Fernandez and Miki Jauhiainen combining to throw back consecutive kill attempts from Hanes, the second of which went for a point to cut the lead to 17-16.
"We just play our game and it's all about who has the tougher mindset here," Fernandez said of the rally. "We just believed in ourselves and trusted in each other. That's really what it was about."
Ohio State wouldn't go away, however, and fought back to tie the score at 20-20 before earning a set point, up 24-23. A Gardini kill following a long rally spoiled the Buckeyes' set point, however, and helped set up another kill for the freshman a few moments later for the match.8 comments on this story
As for the play of his team overall, Olmstead was happy for the win while quickly noting several things that will need to be addressed moving forward.
"I was really excited with us playing together, as a team," Olmstead said. "Ideally I want to get some more contribution from our middles, but that should come with time and they know that. But we were able to be a little more balanced in other spots to make up for it."
The Cougars will take on Ball State on Saturday at the Smith Fieldhouse before heading out on the road for six straight matches before playing at home again on Feb. 14 vs. Concordia.