BY BETH PALMER
Exactly eight months after winning its first-ever NCAA championship, BYU’s men’s volleyball team will take the Smith Fieldhouse floor Saturday night with more than just the obvious task of defeating Loyola University; this team is trying to replace the irreplaceable.
The Cougars are launching the 2000 season without the signature faces of the past few years of BYU volleyball: All-Americans Ryan Millar and Ossie Antonetti.
Head coach Carl McGown said middle-blocker Millar-who completed his eligibility at BYU last season and has moved on to make some noise on the national scene-will be especially missed.
“There’s no possible way we can have anybody replace Ryan,” McGown said. “He’s one of the best players in the history of college volleyball. Players like him don’t come along very often. … We do have some good middles. They’re not Ryan, but nobody will be.”
McGown said the intimidating task of guarding the middle without Millar will fall to juniors Scott Bunker and Matt Olsen on Saturday.
“There’s no way I could be as good as (Millar),” Bunker said. “But playing with him I’ve learned a lot.”
While Bunker did get at least some playing time last year with the Cougars, Olsen was away from the team last season while he went to school in Arizona for a year.
That inexperience won’t be uncommon among McGown’s projected starters Saturday. The starting six – Chris Pitzak, Joaquin Acosta, Casey Jennings and Mike Wall, in addition to Bunker and Olsen – features as many sophomores (two) as it does seniors.
But McGown said he has confidence in his players.
“They’re all very talented athletes,” he said. “I don’t think we’re as good as last year, but I have hope that by the time the season’s near its end we can be a very good volleyball team.”
But to get to that point, the Cougars will need to find someone to fill the leadership role of senior trio Millar, Antonetti and Steve Hinds, who slammed down 51 kills during BYU’s championship game win vs. Long Beach State last May.
“(Having a leader) is really important,” Bunker said. “What was definitely important was to have Ryan and Ossie when you’re in trouble, when things aren’t going well and you need someone to kill or block a ball. Everybody wants to do it, but when you have that leader, you look to them as someone that can do it.”
So what are the expectations for a national championship team that has admittedly lost a lot of its firepower?
“Of course, we want to win the national championship again,” Bunker said. “We have talent, we need a leader and we lack experience, but by April I think it’s possible we could be the best team in the nation. Right now we’re not, but I think we can be.”
McGown said he hopes his team will be in the Final Four again later this year, but said his firm expectations are for his team to work hard.
“Our goal would be for the team to come into the gym and work as hard as it takes. … That’s what you can control. If you do that, at least you know you did the best you could.”
With that kind of effort, McGown said that, even with the shake-up of the roster, he would not be surprised if his team went undefeated at home.
Saturday’s game will begin at 7 p.m.