Tuesday, May 26, 2020

BYU men’s volleyball relies on brotherly bond to get through COVID-19

BYU men’s volleyball was headed to Stanford to take on the No. 14 ranked Cardinals for the second meeting of the season. With their bags checked and boarding passes in hand, they were at their departure gate and were ready board their flight when a member of the team saw a tweet from the Pac-12 Conference that said All Pac-12 sport competitions were cancelled until further notice due to COVID-19.

Assistant coach Devin Young decided to call Stanford’s coach to check if the match was still on. BYU and Stanford are part of the MPSF conference, and news from the conference had yet to be released.

The Stanford coach got back to Young, telling him not to get on the plane, and the men’s volleyball team followed his advice. The match was canceled. It was the first disappointing piece of news of the day but not the last.

Conferences were canceling their basketball tournaments like rapid fire, and even professional sports were postponing their season. It wasn’t long after that the NCAA canceled March Madness completely.

The Stanford game being canceled along with all tournaments for other sports seemed crazy at the time, but the team didn’t think much of it. The MPSF Conference Championship wasn’t until April, and the NCAA Championship wasn’t until May.

With the change of plans and sunny weather in Provo, some of the players went to a beach court and start playing volleyball with each other, a regular occurrence when they have the day off. An hour into the game, Wil Stanley read a tweet that none of them ever imagined hearing. The NCAA was canceling all remaining winter and spring championships — including men’s volleyball.

The team stopped playing immediately and called head coach Shawn Olmstead. At the time, he only knew as much as they did.

“We honestly couldn’t believe it. It was as if we were in denial about it,” senior Andrew Lincoln said.

Later that day, the team met in the Smith FieldHouse. It all seemed surreal, as if the current situation couldn’t actually be happening and the NCAA couldn’t realistically cancel the remainder of the season.

“They told us we were done,” BYU volleyball player Zach Eschenberg told his wife Kennedy.

The reality of the news they had found out hours ago was just sinking in — the season was over.

The Cougars soared to new heights this season with a 17-1 record, sweeping 10 of their opponents along the way. Just one week before the announcement, they swept the No. 1 Hawaii on their home court and took them to five sets in the second game. They had been voted the No. 1 team in the nation following the Hawaii matches. The Cougars were also the early MPSF favorites and poised to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. But the success on the court was not the only reason the early ending to a prolific season was such a hard pill to swallow.

“We really built something special this year,” Lincoln said. “We will never forget what we did this year and that’s why it’s so heartbreaking. We wanted to see how it would finish out.”

Everyone started hugging the seniors as the whole team was showing emotions. Stanley said there wasn’t a guy on the team that wasn’t crying, a testament to what the team had built and become this season.

Brody Earnest, center, gets the team ready to take on Penn State. (Hannah Miner)

“It was tough for a lot of guys. There was not one person that had a dry eye in that room. There were guys that hadn’t played all season that were emotional because they knew how special that season was,” Stanley said.

Heartbroken, a few members of the team walked to the court and just sat in silence. Two weeks before, they were in that same place. Only that time, it was different: The lights were on, the place was packed and the energy was palpable. It was an environment no opposing team wants to play in. BYU swept Stanford, the team they would have been playing the day after they heard the cancelation news, that night.

Engulfed by the darkness of the Smithfield House gym, teammates Stanley, Lincoln, Eschenberg, Davide Gardini and a couple others tried to understand what coach Olmstead had just officially confirmed to them in a team meeting.

Miki Jauhiainen, far right, celebrates with teammates after winning the point. (Hannah Miner)

“Eventually I got so fed up, so I went and grabbed one of our balls and started peppering with one of the guys,” Lincoln said. “We were all just playing for an hour on the court in the dark with no shoes on. It helped get some emotions out.”

But getting over such an abrupt ending to a season takes time; one night wasn’t enough to come to terms with everything that happened that day.

The relationships the players developed during the season has helped carry them through this hard time. For Miki Jauhiainen, Stanley and Lincoln, having each other to talk through it has helped.

“We talked about it for hours every single day. We slowly settled in and realized (what was happening),” Lincoln said.

It wasn’t just that the season had ended, that they still had their best games to ahead of them or the fact that they were the best team in the nation — it was about family.

There was a brotherhood they developed because they were fighting for one another. It was the sum of all the days conditioning together in the fall and pushing each other to become better. They grew to be so close to one another because of how hard they fought for each other.

“We built a culture of family and working hard for the person next to you. All the work we put in in the fall made it worth it, but it is still hard to accept the season being over,” Stanley said.

The BYU men’s volleyball team huddles up before they take on Pepperdine. (Hannah Miner)

It may sound cliche, but this team became a family. For Lincoln, who has been battling injuries throughout his college career, coming back to an environment that fostered brotherhood made this season worth it.

“I really cherish these moments with the guys and coaches around me. Seeing what the boys were able to do this year from a volleyball standpoint was unbelievable,” he said. “Honestly for me, it was the experience; the guys and the coaches were first and the volleyball was second. The success we had on the court was a function of the culture that we built.”

Lincoln said they are still a band of brothers even if they won’t be finishing out the season. The support they have for each other now continues off the court. With the season canceled, the team has used their time off to experience other aspects of life together unrelated to volleyball.

“We have our relationships on the court as teammates, but we’ve been able to be off the court and be open with each other and spend time with each other,” Stanley said.

Stanley has been taking Gardini golfing, something Gardini had never done before.

“It’s funny, Davide is an awful golfer. It’s something that I liked to do, and he wanted to try,” Stanley jokingly said. “But, he’s getting better and we are building a stronger bond with each other. We are supporting one another.”

Gardini is getting better at golf, but more importantly, he and Stanley have found another way to connect other than just setter to outside hitter.

There will always be questions of what could have been for the BYU men’s volleyball team this season, but what will never be questioned is the love this team had for each other. They were and still are family, a band of brothers.

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