The BYU men's volleyball team huddles during a match in the Smith Fieldhouse, as head coach Shawn Olmstead reviews his plans on the sideline to the right. (Hannah Miner)

How Shawn Olmstead brought BYU men’s volleyball back as national championship contenders

Seventeen years ago, BYU men’s volleyball head coach Shawn Olmstead lifted the men’s volleyball NCAA National Championship trophy as a libero for the Cougars.

In the 10-year gap between the national championship win and Olmstead being named head coach, BYU made the NCAA Championship game once in its two NCAA tournament appearances and won one MPSF Championship.

Now, Olmstead has brought BYU men’s volleyball back to glory as the Cougars have made the NCAA Championship game and won an MPSF Tournament title twice during his five-year tenure.

Olmstead and company assembled a team capable of ending the 17-year national championship drought with four 2020 AVCA All-Americans in the lineup, but Olmstead knows they still have to earn everything this year.

“We recognize nothing has been given to us and nothing has been proven this year,” Olmstead said earlier this year. “We believe we have a pretty high level of young guys and old guys.”

The No. 2 BYU’s men’s volleyball team huddles together during their match against Stanford on March 12. (Hannah Miner)

Player Development

The jump from high school and club volleyball to Division I volleyball is a steep one for players, but BYU has done a great job of developing players early on into their careers.

Senior opposite hitter Gabi Garcia Fernandez made great strides during his freshman year as he was named to the 2018 AVCA All-America Second Team, the only freshman to be named to the second team or higher.

The Puerto Rican was snubbed from the top five in his recruiting class by volleyballmag.org, but played the best out of anyone in his class coming out of high school.

“Gabi came to the program ready to play right off the bat,” Olmstead said. “Every single day, he focuses on just a few things he can improve and things coaches believe he can improve on.”

Garcia Fernandez’s improvement was on full display in 2020 as he was named 2020 AVCA Player of the Year as a junior.

Even with all the accolades he has collected, Garcia Fernandez strives to grow as a player in his final season as a Cougar, a testament to BYU’s player development. “I’ll for sure go for more. I for sure will try to be better than I am.”

Garcia Fernandez feels that learning from mistakes and sticking to the grind have had the greatest impact on his growth during his four-year career.

“A lot of mistakes were done, for sure in my four years, but I am not even close to the person I was back then,” Garcia Fernandez said. “So for that I thank BYU and I’m super blessed they gave me those lessons along the way.”

2020 AVCA Player of the Year Gabi Garcia Fernandez goes for a kill against Pepperdine. (Hannah Miner)

No player can attest to sticking to the grind more than senior outside hitter Zach Eschenberg.

Eschenberg struggled to get playing time in his first three years as he sat behind All-American Brenden Sander. Eschenberg’s struggles got so bad that he didn’t practice on the main court with the senior squad and didn’t travel with the team for away games.

“Playing behind those big-name outside hitters, I thought, ‘I’d be lucky to see the court sometime,'” Eschenberg said.

His early struggles did not deter Eschenberg as he continued to grow as a player with the help of coaches and teammates.

“I feel like I blossomed as a player,” Eschenberg said. “That speaks to my teammates and coaches, who’ve given me pointers along the way.”

Then everything clicked in Eschenberg’s senior year in 2020 as he started every game except one and tallied 132 kills in 55 sets. Eschenberg’s rise did not go unnoticed, as he earned AVCA All-American Honorable Mention and All-MPSF Second Team honors.

“He never, not once, complained. He never worried about himself. He never had a gripe. He continued to grind and grind. Look at that kid now,” Olmstead said of Eschenberg’s growth over the years. “For years and years, I’m going to talk about Zach Eschenberg being a team player.”

Now, “the forgotten man” is a mainstay for the Cougars and makes sure his opponents and fans remember his name with his play.

Coaching

Atop a successful program is an experienced coaching staff Olmstead has constructed over the years.

With Olmstead at the helm, the Cougars have posted an average of 22 wins per season. In Olmstead’s best season in 2020, he guided BYU to a .944 win percentage, which was cut short due to COVID-19.

Even with all the success Olmstead has had on the court, his impact as a coach goes far beyond volleyball for each BYU player.

“Shawn is like my dad. He’s always giving me life lessons and trying to make me a better person every day,” Garcia Fernandez said. “He doesn’t forget about us, he’s not that type of coach. He cares about all 21 or 22 players on the team.”

On top of Olmstead’s coaching, assistant coaches Devin Young and Micah Naone, who both were hired in the 2018 season, have had a profound impact on BYU players.

The pair have been key in the development of several stand-out Cougars.

“(Devin) has improved my blocking like no other. Micah has improved my offensive side. He’s always giving me tips,” Garcia Fernandez said.

“It was helpful to get Devin as a coach, he’s helped develop my game,” senior middle blocker Miki Jauhiainen said.

The trio’s impact on the team and players is well recognized by those within the program.

“All of them helped me be the player I am today. I owe them a great debt. I owe them almost my life,” Garcia Fernandez said.

Shawn Olmstead, kneeling, alongside assistant coaches Devin Young, right, and Micah Naone, left, coaching up their team. (Hannah Miner)

Team Chemistry

The Cougars have built up a bond over the years so every player feels like they’re a part of a family when they step on the court together.

“I feel like we’ve gotten so close, especially after all these years. I love all those guys so much. We’re a family,” Eschenberg said.

Each time BYU takes the court, the Cougars enjoy the company of those playing alongside them as they try to beat their opponent.

“It’s awesome to have such a fun group of guys to play volleyball with,” Eschenberg said.

The team chemistry built by BYU improved its play on the court as each player knows they can rely on the man next to them.

BYU’s 2020 senior class on Senior Night, who have built a powerful bond together over the years. (Hannah Miner)

Cougar Nation

Even the fans, Cougar Nation, can take credit for BYU’s success as their energy and noise make the Smith Fieldhouse one of the toughest places for opponents to play in the nation.

“Being able to have fans in the (Smith) Fieldhouse makes it so hard to play in,” senior setter Wil Stanley said of having fans in the Smith Fieldhouse for the first time in over a year. “We missed them.”

Cougar fans were recently allowed back following the pandemic to attend home volleyball games on March 12 in the Smith Fieldhouse, with a limited capacity of 500.

“It felt awesome. There was a lot of noise, I wasn’t expecting all that noise. I did get goosebumps,” Olmstead said of playing in front of fans.

Olmstead has brought BYU back as national championship contenders during his five-year tenure. He will try to recreate a memory 17 years in the making by lifting a national championship trophy once again as a Cougar this time as a head coach.

Cougars fans at the Smith Fieldhouse for BYU’s men’s volleyball game against Stanford on March 12. This was the first match in front of fans for BYU in over a year. (Hannah Miner)

BYU won the MPSF Championship and received the No. 2 seed and a bye to the semifinal in the 2021 NCAA men’s volleyball championship May 6-8 in Columbus, Ohio.

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