Defining moments: Men’s volleyball beats Hawaii to start season 17-0

Editor’s note: To help fill the sports void, The Universe is taking a look at some of the more memorable moments of the 2019-20 season across all BYU sports in a series of stories.

It is hard to pinpoint one defining moment for BYU Men’s Volleyball in 2020 because the Cougars won 17 matches in a row. But the sweep at No. 1 Hawaii on March 5 to cap off the winning streak seems like a good place to start.

Gabi Garcia Fernandez had eight service aces (see our visual breakdown for more on that), the team had a sky-high .603 hitting percentage (the second-best for BYU in the rally-scoring era), and three Cougars finished with double-digit kills: Garcia Fernandez, sophomore star Davide Gardini and unsung senior Zach Eschenberg, who had the match-winning kill. It was the total team effort that came to define a team littered with top-tier talent.

“What an exciting match to be a part of,” BYU head coach Shawn Olmstead said in a statement after the match. “It’s hard to focus on one or two guys tonight when this was a complete team effort.”

The following day, the Cougars played the Rainbow Warriors again, this time losing in five sets – their first loss in over two months. Then, just five days later, before boarding a flight to play Stanford, the rest of the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If the shutdown had come just a few days earlier, the Cougars might have remained unbeaten on the season.

Even with the loss at Hawaii, BYU had already proven enough to earn the No. 1 spot in the AVCA national rankings in the final week of play, finishing the season at the top of collegiate men’s volleyball.

As it stands, the 2020 team was among the best in program history, and a favorite to win it all in the NCAA Tournament in May. The 17-0 start is the second-best in team history, behind the 1999 squad’s 18-0 start, and the .944 (17-1) winning percentage BYU finished with fell just short of the .968 (30-1) percentage in 1999 as well.

The team returned most of its roster from the previous season, allowing the team to grow in chemistry and maturity together. BYU also maintained excellent physical conditioning this season, following an injury-riddled 2019 season that saw starting setter Stanley go down with a severe ankle sprain, among other missing pieces. Stanley and the Cougars came back from an underwhelming season with an edge in 2020, building upon past mistakes and experiences.

“We’ve been going into every game this year saying, ‘Hey, it’s another game, it’s another chance for us to get better,'” Stanley said after the matches at Hawaii. “I think that has been our biggest upside this year, just the fact that we don’t take any game differently. (Whether) we’re playing Hawaii or we’re playing Concordia, we’re going to go into the game with the same mindset of ‘How can we make ourselves better?’ And that’s kind of how we’ve kind of improved every single game this year.”

Stanley ran the offense and made pinpoint passes to open the floor up for BYU’s talented international hitters, Garcia Fernandez and Gardini, and even allowed for the emergence of Eschenberg, who joined the formerly mentioned as All-Americans.

The well-oiled machine of an offense dominated from the service line and at the net — and a defense led by experienced blockers Miki Jauhiainen and Felipe de Brito Ferreira and assisted by recently returned missionary Mitchel Worthington at libero — helped the Cougars sweep their opponents in 10 of 18 matches in 2020.

With the NCAA allowing seniors in spring sports to return for another season due to the COVID-19 interruption, BYU should once again be able to maintain its high level of play and chemistry, as Stanley, Eschenberg and Jauhiainen have all committed to returning in 2021 for what they call “unfinished business.”

Below is the March 5 match against Hawaii in its entirety.

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