By BETH PALMER
In a perfect close to their honor-laden BYU careers, Ryan Millar served for match point and Ossie Antonetti sealed the deal with one of his signature kills as BYU finished out a convincing three-game sweep of Long Beach State to take home the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship in Los Angeles on May 8.
Moments later, 10 more Cougars joined the two All-Americans at the center of Pauley Pavilion’s court in a mad tangle of frenzied athletes jumping with the joy of being a national champion. It was a scene that was the perfect close to what has been the greatest team to take to a court or field during my three years here at BYU.
The media pass hanging around my neck allowed me to be one of the lucky few to witness that post-game celebration up close on the court, and it validated something I’d believed about this team all year — those guys genuinely loved playing together. And that championship was just the frosting on the cake of a season that was a testament to what a team ought to be.
As Millar put it after winning the championship, “The thing about this year’s team is it was really a team.”
Proof of Millar’s words is as close as the game that gave BYU just its fifth NCAA championship in any sport.
Six Cougars took the court, and six more took to their feet on the sidelines, living and dying with every serve, block, kill and side out. Watching the group on the floor, if you were to keep your eyes off the ball, you’d never even know if the Cougars had scored a point or lost the serve. The end of every play, no matter the result, was met with group high-fives and encouraging words all around — even when BYU fell behind 7-0 to open the match’s third game.
Compare that with the team on the other side of the net. Long Beach State had youth and loads of talent, but it was missing something the Cougars had. With every spike missed by David McKienzie and every mishit from Chris Seiffert, the frustration on the 49ers’ faces intensified and the obvious tension on their half of the court grew even thicker.
Chalk it up to experience. The Cougars’ starting lineup boasted three seniors, whose savvy and maturity became more obvious with each game. But chalk it up to something else, too. Chalk it up to team chemistry and unity, because those things played just as large a part.
Those are the intangibles coaches dream about and professional sports’ GMs can’t buy, even with the fattest checkbooks from the wealthiest owners. Those intangibles were what made this team so much fun to watch and what brought another title to Provo.
What most of us will probably remember about this team will be the way Antonetti could turn into Superman, getting so high above the net to slam down a kill you couldn’t believe the guy was human. But without Hector Lebron setting the ball to him, where would he be? We’ll remember the way Ryan Millar could absolutely take over a game, but any good hitter can find his way around one guy. Add Mac Wilson into the equation, and opponents start having nightmares.
The way that team worked together and celebrated together was what made Antonetti say, moments after winning the title, that he just wished he could go back Monday and practice with his teammates. It was what led head coach Carl McGown to say the match wasn’t won by one or two stars, but by his entire team.
That team unity wasn’t just a result of the 30 victories BYU claimed over the course of this season, but of all those times we fans never got to see. It grew during hours of practice and drills — hours in which this title was won. That’s why the guys whose names didn’t make it into last week’s box score won that championship as much as those who sweated two hours on the court to claim the trophy for the group.
That’s why, despite the loss of four stellar seniors, the MPSF will have no time to catch its breath before these Cougars come back next season.