PROVO — BYU's men's volleyball team has taken it on the chin during the early season, but a recent win, and a realization of this season's big picture, has both coaches and players optimistic as to what lies ahead.
Considering that BYU consistently ranks inside of the top 5 nationally, on top of reaching the final four in the past three seasons, the team's current ranking of No. 8 seems a bit underwhelming. But the ranking is also deserved and maybe a bit friendly on the heels of a brutal road trip that spanned almost an entire month where the Cougars lost 12 of their final 13 sets played before returning home.
"We're not expecting teams to be weak and us to be the greatest team in the country," said BYU outside hitter Gabi Garcia Fernandez. "We know every team has its ups and downs. … It happened, and there's not anything you can do about it. You can only work harder to do better in the future."
The Cougars didn't take the four straight losses to just anyone, losing a couple to No. 9 Santa Barbara, another to No. 5 Pepperdine and wrapping it up with a loss to No. 4 UCLA, although the manner of which those losses came provides a good deal of resolve.
"We've got to be better in not hurting ourselves," said BYU coach Shawn Olmstead. "We're hurting ourselves a lot and the guys know that. There's certain situations here and there where we tend to get a little more rattled than I believed we would. So it's probably a function of a few different things."
One glaring thing about this year's team is the relative youth. Fernandez has taken on the role of team leader, despite just being a sophomore, with most contributors seeing just their second or even their first years of regular playing time. Gone are seasoned leaders like Brenden Sander and Leo Durkin, leaving a big void in that respect.
Piling on top of the loss of key senior leaders is Olmstead having to replace both of his top assistant coaches, Luka Slabe and Jaylen Reyes, which has been a challenge to adjust to.
"The new staff has been great, but I'm not going to lie, a lot of the things that have been clockwork in years past (have changed)," Olmstead said. "… So it's been a bit of a perfect storm with the new players. But you learn and improve together. … I have a lot of confidence in my staff."
The good thing about BYU's struggles is their timing early in the season, rather than late in April.2 comments on this story
"One of the championship banners we hung up there, we started that season 1-5," said Olmstead, who played for BYU during its 2001 and 2004 championship seasons. "So it's not the end of the world. No doubt that we have to improve, and we have a lot of work ahead of us, but I've always preached … that what goes on right now isn't the end all and be all."
Olmstead referred back to what his former coach, Carl McGown, preached, "We need to be great in May. That's what's important."
A good sign the team may be turning things around already was Thursday night, when it defeated visiting Concordia in straight sets. A tougher challenge will come to the Smith Fieldhouse on Saturday when the Cougars take on No. 14 USC (7 p.m. MST, BYUtv.)