2021 Season Review
PROVO, Utah — BYU men’s volleyball finished the 2021 season with a 20-4 record and a No. 2 national ranking. The team won its eighth Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Conference championship and competed in its eighth NCAA National Championship match.
"Looking back on the season, one word we talked about with our team is 'gratitude' which rings even more true now. What a remarkable season we had together as a team," said head coach Shawn Olmstead. "Considering the year that we all went through worldwide, we consider ourselves lucky that we got to compete and play a sport we love. I'm grateful to all of our staff, admin and each player that put their heart and souls into this year. We couldn't have done it without them. We talk daily about being the lucky ones and we really were just that."
In his sixth season as head coach Olmstead repeated as MPSF coach of the year, his fourth time receiving the honor. Olmstead coached his Cougars to victory and maintains the highest win record of any active head coach in the NCAA Division I/II, with a record of 125-33.
2021 By the Numbers
Overall Record: 20-4
MPSF Record: 13-3
Final National Ranking: No. 2
Final Conference Ranking: No. 1
Hitting Percentage: .345 (1st in MPSF, 2nd in NCAA)
Blocks Per Set: 2.759 (1st in MPSF, 3rd in NCAA)
Aces Per Set: 1.72 (1st in MPSF, 3rd in NCAA)
W-L Percentage: 0.833 (1st in MPSF, 5th in NCAA)
Assists Per Set: 11.49 (4th in MPSF)
Digs Per Set: 7.54 (6th in MPSF)
BYU began the season ranked No. 1 in the NVA/ AVCA poll and was picked to finish first in the MPSF. After falling in the national championship match to Hawaii, the Cougars ended the season at No. 2. BYU was never ranked lower than No. 2 the entire 2021 season.
After nearly 11 months without volleyball competition, the 2021 season began for the Cougars on Feb. 4 in Provo against UCLA. This was the first time since 2010 that BYU faced UCLA opening weekend. The Cougars dropped the home opener to the Bruins, losing in four sets. BYU would end up tying the series with a dominant sweep a day later, Feb 6. Gabi Garcia Fernandez recorded 12 kills, with zero errors, on an exceptional .800 clip. The 2020 AVCA Player of the Year also added nine digs, two aces and a pair of blocks to his stat line. Davide Gardini ended the match with 11 kills, three digs and two aces.
Following opening weekend, Garcia Fernandez took home two player of the week awards; MPSF Offensive Player of the Week and AVCA DI Player of the Week.
The Cougars welcomed Pepperdine to Provo the next weekend, beating the Waves in back-to-back games in the Smith Fieldhouse. In game one the Cougars defeated Pepperdine in set one with a rare score of 25-6, one of the largest margins of victory in a set by BYU in the rally-scoring era. BYU would go on to sweep 3-0. In game two, the Cougars won in four in a much closer match. Garcia Fernandez led the Cougars with 16 kills, hitting .345 and three aces. It was the 27th match of Garcia Fernandez’s career where he had three or more aces.
Starting Feb 18, BYU began a four-match series with Grand Canyon that would cover two weekends and two states. The Cougars were successful in game one, winning 3-1. Freshman Gavin Julien had his first career start, tallying two kills and a block. Feb 19 the Cougars outlasted Grand Canyon in a five-set thriller for one of the longest matches played in the Smith Fieldhouse. Zach Eschenberg led the way for the Cougars, finishing with a career-high 16 kills on a .361 clip. BYU held GCU to a hitting percentage of .293, finishing with 31 digs and 11 blocks. Both teams ended the night with 60 kills and each of the first four sets were decided by just two points.
The next weekend the teams traveled to Phoenix to finish the final two games of the four-match series. BYU was stunned in a 3-0 loss Feb. 25 in GCU arena. The three-set match featured the longest set played in the rally scoring era with BYU and GCU finishing set two 45-43, with GCU winning. In game two in Arizona, BYU came back with a vengeance, posting a dominant sweep of the Antelopes. BYU had 12 blocks compared to GCU’s one, and eight aces compared to three.
Following the GCU series, the Cougars were voted from the No. 1 Spot to No. 2 behind Hawaii, after five weeks at No. 1. BYU and Hawaii would stay No. 1 and No. 2 through the remainder of the season.
BYU continued road matches heading to California to take on Concordia Irvine and USC. March 4 the Cougars swept Concordia Irvine on their home court. Eschenberg matched his career-high 16 kills on a .469 clip with only one error. The next evening, season high-performances brought BYU its third sweep in a row. Eschenberg and Miki Jauhiainen both registered season-high blocks, five and seven respectively, of the team’s 10.5 total
Following new state COVID-19 guidelines, a limited number of fans were allowed to attend remaining matches in the Smith Fieldhouse. Tickets were sold on a game-by-game basis and sold out almost immediately.
With fans seated safely in the stands, BYU welcomed Stanford for back-to-back matches March 12 and 13. BYU swept the Cardinal both nights, their fourth and fifth sweeps of the season.
The Cougars continued their winning streak in Malibu March 19, becoming the first MPSF opponent to knock off Pepperdine on its home court since 2018. Gardini had a huge night posting 18 kills, .556 hitting percentage and three aces. BYU won again March 20 in a 3-0 sweep. Gardini’s showing at Pepperdine earned him his fourth career MPSF player of the week on March 23.
Friday March 26 the Cougars recorded their eighth straight win in a sweep at Concordia Irvine. Eschenberg hit a season high .733 (11-0-15) and led the Cougars in kills. Gardini matched his career high with five aces for a new season high as well. Still at Concordia Irvine, the Cougars swept March 27 increasing the win streak to nine. Gardini continued his hot streak and achieved his second double-double in the 2021 season with 10 kills and 11 digs.
April 1 and 2 brought the final regular season home matches in front of fans in the Smith Fieldhouse. BYU took on USC both nights in front of a small crowd of physically-distanced fans. The Cougars cruised to a straight-set win on April 1. Eschenberg added a career-high-tying four aces, three of which came in the first set. Gardini paced the Cougars (15-2, 14-2) with a team-high 11 kills, hitting at a .769 clip while also adding four blocks on the match.
On April 2, BYU won 3-1 on senior night. As a team, the Cougars notched a .310 hitting percentage while holding the Trojans (5-10, 5-10) to a .132 clip. BYU, now on an 11-game winning streak, doubled up USC in blocks with 14, compared to USC’s seven.
Felipe de Brito Ferreira, Eschenberg, Cyrus Fa’alogo, Garcia Fernandez, Zach Hendrickson, Jauhiainen and Wil Stanley were honored that evening as departing seniors.
The final regular season games took place at UCLA on April 9-10. With a 3-0 victory in Los Angeles in game one, the Cougars secured the No. 1 seed in the MPSF Tournament. BYU hit a .455 percentage with 30 kills, while holding UCLA to a .160. The Bruins would bounce back in game two to split the series, beating the Cougars 3-1.
With a 17-3 record and the No. 1 seed, BYU prepared to host the 2021 MPSF championship April 22-24. The Cougars received a first round bye and took on Grand Canyon in the semifinal match. BYU swept GCU to advance to the title game against Pepperdine.
The Cougars took the 2021 MPSF Tournament championship with a straight-set victory over No. 3 Pepperdine. This was BYU’s eighth tournament title and first since 2018. Eschenberg paced the Cougars (19-3) with a match-high 13 kills on a .550 clip to go along with two blocks, two digs and an ace versus the Waves. Felipe de Brito Ferreira contributed a match-high seven blocks, six kills and a season-high .857 hitting percentage for BYU, while Jauhiainen recorded five kills and four blocks. Stanley posted a match-high 38 assists, six digs, five blocks and a kill. BYU had 13 blocks on the night while Pepperdine had none. Garcia Fernandez was named the MPSF Tournament Most Valuable Player, while Stanley and Eschenberg were named to the all-tournament team.
With the MPSF Tournament victory, the Cougars received an automatic bid to the 2021 NCAA Tournament May 6-8 in Columbus, Ohio. BYU was given the No. 2 overall seed and a bye to the semifinal round where they faced Lewis. The match against the Flyers was the first non-conference game the Cougars played in 2021. BYU defeated Lewis 3-1 on the Covelli Center court. Three serves in a row by Jon Stanley put the Cougars in position for match point. A final service error by Lewis ended the match, sending the Cougars to their eighth national championship match.
BYU faced No. 1 Hawaii May 8 in the title game. The Cougars were swept 3-0 and ended the season with a 20-4 record. At the conclusion of the tournament W. Stanley and Garcia Fernandez were named to the all-tournament team.
Awards and Honors
"We had so many outstanding team accomplishments this year such as capturing the MPSF championship in Provo, honoring our All- Americans and finishing the season ranked No. 2," said Olmstead. "At times, we're at a loss for words to describe what a ride it was."
This year the Cougars had the most All-Americans honored in team history. Five players were chosen: Garcia Fernandez, Gardini and Stanley were named to the first team and Eschenberg and de Brito Ferreira were named honorable mentions. Garcia Fernandez is only the second BYU volleyball player to receive All- America honors in all four years of eligibility.
Six players were named to MPSF all-conference teams. Garcia Fernandez, Gardini and Wil Stanley received first team nominations, de Brito Ferreira and Eschenberg were named to the second team and Jauhianen was named honorable mention.
Academic all-conference players included Eschenberg, Jauhiainen and Wil Stanley.
Jauhiainen received his second career Elite 90 award, and is the only BYU athlete in history to win it more than once. This award is given to the athlete competing in the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament with the highest cumulative GPA.
Garcia Fernandez was honored as MPSF Player of the Year for the second year in a row.
Looking to 2022
With the loss of seven seniors, including a majority of the starting lineup, the Cougars will start fresh with a mix of experienced and new faces. Gardini is committed to completing his education and will return for his fourth year in the 2022 season.