Leading up to the NCAA Tournament matches, VolleyMob is sitting down for a brief conversation with the head coach of each of the seven remaining teams for a quick update on their season, their personnel and their outlook heading into the final matches of 2018.
BYU has been knocking on the door the last few years, falling in the National Championship match to Ohio State. The Cougars are seeking their first national title since 2004 and received the No. 2 overall seed and a bye to the semifinals after winning the MPSF regular season and tournament titles.
Shawn Olmstead has been on the Cougar sidelines since 2008, acting as the head coach since 2015. The 2018 features a cast of characters including senior outside Brenden Sander, freshman opposite Gabi Garcia Fernandez and sophomore outside Storm Fa’agata Tufuga, each averaging more than two kills per set and hitting .250 or better and combining for 124 aces. Freshman middle Felipe de Brito Ferreira has stepped into the spotlight as well as senior Price Jarman was sidelined with injury.
A schedule including wins over Ohio State, UCLA, and Hawaii has set the Cougars up for another shot at that elusive ring. To get Olmstead’s thoughts on his team, how they got to this point and the road ahead, we sat down with the coach for a brief conversation last week.
This is your third straight Final Four. After being so close the last two years, is there a sense of unfinished business?
I definitely feel that. Those losses are always tough, especially in the last match. I think the guys have always taken a lot of pride in the fact that they have been there, but this group definitely wants more. So, they feel that and I feel that in their chemistry and the makeup of these guys as we progressed through the year.
You played Ohio State back in January and won in five. Was there a small sense of accomplishment and revenge after losing to them in the championship game last May?
Definitely. They have been the team that has finished the season against us the last two years and won the championship. I think it is important to acknowledge them. I always have. So going there and playing them when we had just been there the previous May …I know it was the start of the season and teams are still figuring each other out and figuring out their new players and pieces, but no doubt that was a very emotional win for the guys. As I told one of their coaches after that, I would have traded you this one for either of the two previous ones, but we will take any win when we can get it especially against a top opponent on their home floor. That was definitely satisfying.
You had a few of those types of wins this year, winning at Hawaii and beating UCLA twice. Talk about your team’s journey in 2018. There have been a few bumps along the road but some major highs that earned you the No. 2 overall seed.
When we started out the year, someone told me our record was something like 5-4 at one point, and what we have tried to focus on is us getting better as a team as the season unfolds. You are going to win matches and you are going to lose matches. The most important thing is to just keep our focus and attention on improvement and on our team together. I feel like they have done a really good job of that. They have shown that as they have grown throughout the season and we were able to put different guys in some different places. We have had some injuries throughout the course of the year as has everybody and they have done a real nice job adjusting and improving throughout the course of the year for sure.
Do you think some of that adversity has helped get you where you are and given you more depth at this point in the season?
I think in losses you tend to evaluate things a little closer. When you win, everyone feels pretty good and there is a sense of some sort of accomplishment. When you lose you start to analyze things a little more in depth, why did this happen, what happened here or there. That has definitely occurred over the last few seasons where we have made improvements in places that we felt we weren’t as strong as our opponents. That has been really important for us as we constantly strive to get better and better every day in practice and sometimes those losses are where you look a little closer at what is going on.
Speaking of practice… You get a bye to the semifinals, and get nearly two weeks off from competition. What have you been focusing on with your team over the last week and on into next since your opponent is still up in the air?
In terms of the uncertainty of who we are going to play, it has been really important for us to gather all the information on every possible opponent and we have done that. I think that is really important because you have a tournament format now, so the reality is you could face anyone.
But in terms of our team and our side, the focus has to be on serving even tougher so we can get our opponent out of system and we’ve got to pass so we can be in system. That is where we have tried to focus our attention and take full advantage of all of the practice opportunities we can over this time.
Not to get ahead of ourselves, there is a chance you could face UCLA for the fourth time this season should they get past Harvard. How does that experience help or hinder you since both teams know each other so well?
I just think it makes for a very exciting match. They are comfortable, they know us and we know them. Our players know each other and are very good friends and teammates. They played club together and all of these different things. The BYU-UCLA matchup has been something pretty big in men’s college volleyball for the last 20 years or so. We look forward to whoever we may play and that very likely could be UCLA. Right now, our focus and energies have to be on ourselves. I haven’t spoken at all with our players about it may be or may not be.
Give me a mini-scouting report on UCLA as your team is as familiar with them as any?
A ton of it starts with their setter Micah (Ma’a). I think he is a fantastic volleyball player. I know him, I know his parents really well and he comes from a very deep volleyball family. He knows how to play the game, he understands the situations, he understands what is going on around him very well and he just has very good energy and effort. That kid will never give up on a play. So it starts with him as the setter running that team and I think they have figured out their lineup a little more over the last few months. They have (Daenan) Gyimah in the middle who is always a threat and he has been able to beat us up a few times, and then we have been able to get good touches on him and when we have been able to do that we have been able to get in a rhythm and improve.
(Jake) Arnitz on the outside is finding his groove and then (Christian) Hessenauer on the right side has been very consistent for them scoring a lot of points. They are a good team. They serve the ball really well. Every time they go back to serve, they are serving for a point. I like that attitude and mindset, so we have to be able control that and do our best to control the ball on our side of the net to run our offense.
Give me a quick glimpse at Harvard.
We don’t get to see a lot of those teams in person, but we have video sharing and we have access to a national data base of film.
But, they are deserving of being in the Final Four. I am excited for them. It is always exciting to have a new team in it and watch them compete and see their players get that opportunity. They’ve got some key players there that can get going and they will feel like they are just as deserving as anyone else to be in there.
Of course, they have to go up in that first play-in match, which we have been in before. We have been in that situation the last couple of years and we have also been in the situation we are in now with that bye into the semifinals.
Obviously you have to get through one of those two teams first, but what kind of scouting do you do on the other half of the bracket because once things start going, it goes fast?
We were fortunate to play Ohio State and Irvine. We didn’t get a chance to play Long Beach State, but we have seen them against a ton of the opponents we were scouting, so we have seen them a lot. We have gathered all of the video that we can. We like to pick a certain amount of matches and compile that video. We use some recent stuff and we use some old stuff as well and just prepare for each and every team.
Let’s talk personnel. You have three returning All-Americans –Brenden Sander, Price Jarman and setter Leo Durkin, that get a lot of attention and accolades. Who are the unsung heroes of the team?
That is a really good question. If you ask for the unsung heroes, it is everybody else except for those guys that get that recognition, notes in the articles or get their names mentioned. It is every player on our team, but we have had a few guys … we have had Cy (Cyrus Fa’alogo) do a really good job filling in at the OH position. He has had to play a large role when we have kind of gone through a rotation of outside hitters. We have had Felipe (de Brito Ferreira) come off the bench and play really well. He came off when Price (Jarman) was injured and has done a really nice job and has become one of the starters for us.
But every name for us that is not one of the main guys, or the more recognized names, is super important for the improvement and success of our team. They are in practice every day. They are helping those guys that have earned recognition and gotten all of the awards, they are pushing those guys every day to improve and get better and better.
You mentioned Price’s injury. Was that a blessing in disguise that Felipe was able to step into that role for almost a month and give you more depth now that both are available?
We definitely got a better look. We had seen continued improvement from Felipe every day in practice, but we definitely went with him from there and it has been something that has really benefitted our team defensively and offensively. It has been a good thing for us.
Price is 100 percent ready. He may have his finger bandaged up a little, but in terms of ready to go, he is good.
You have the 1-2 punch of Gabi Garcia Fernandez and Brenden Sander. Then you have Storm Fa’agata-Tufuga waiting in the wings with 2.38 kills per set. Talk about that trio and what they bring to the table.
With the serving at this level, you have to have some strong guys that are willing to carry those loads on the pins. Brenden and Gabi have carried the vast majority of the load throughout the season, and they have done a fantastic job. Everybody is confident in them and they’ve got the green light to go and swing away and do their best to score points for us. They have been able to hit us out of situations when we go against a good serving team.
Then, like you said, we have had Storm come off the bench. He is a physical player. They kid can jump and he is fun to watch. He has done a really nice job when has had the opportunities.
Your team ranks second nationally in blocks per set (2.81), sixth in hitting percentage (.312) and eighth in aces (1.62). What part of your game has carried you through the season thus far?
It is something that maybe you can’t quantify exactly with a stat, but I just like what we have done in terms of the preparation for each and every one of our opponents. That is major props to our assistants and everybody else, the players really buying into what is going on on the other side of the net. I think they have done a really good job there understand certain situations and understanding what they are going against. I just feel like every match they have been pretty comfortable starting the match understanding what is coming their way. I think that is really important. It goes to the preparation, etc., and I just really feel like that has been huge for us. The guys have really bought into that this year, each and every scouting report and all of the preparation for each specific match and not getting beyond that match at the present.
What areas do you need to shore up to finally earn that nationally championship ring?
I think we just have to be a little better at defense behind the block. We always want to take pride in the block. Blocking traditionally has been a real important thing for BYU for so many years and each new player buys into that mindset, but I just feel like we can get better defensively, on the ground behind the block. That has been a lot of our focus over the last few weeks.
BYU is looking for its first national championship since 2004. You guys have been so close the last couple of years. What would it mean for you to finally get that title?
If you look at BYU or you are ever able to catch one of the matches on TV, you can see the support and the community that is BYU volleyball community. That means a lot to me. I take a lot of pride in that and the support we have from the administration to that of each and every fan that comes out to our home games. Every year we are probably No. 1 in attendance and it would be amazing for those guys for sure.
Then I look at each and everyone one of these players and I love and care for them so much for them and I just know, having won national championships myself as a player, how amazing that is and the sense of accomplishment as a team of reaching your goals. I really want it for the guys and I know they want it, so we are going to do everything we can. It is not just one match though, so we have to make it specifically each day from here on out and in practice. Then as we get to each match, what is going to be important is focusing on that opponent and then go from there.
It would mean so much to community, to our boys, to everyone who has been so supportive of our program and all of their hard work and everything they do every day to accomplish that goal.
You won the league and you won the league tournament. If things don’t work out as you hope, would you still classify 2018 as a successful season?
Of course. These guys have accomplished so much. Their body of work throughout the season has to me and I believe to them been a success. Maybe in the moment I would answer a little bit differently, but when I look at that question, the opposite of success to a lot of people is failure. Am I going to leave there thinking we are failures? No. Maybe we did lose that particular match, but I don’t look at this group, our team, as failures. It is a good question and a tough question, but I just know these guys want more and I want to and I know our staff wants to do everything we can to help them accomplish more.