Certainly it’s early — there has been just one MPSF match so far — but if pre-conference play is a true indicator, the BYU men have established themselves as the team to beat in the league.
The second-ranked Cougars are 8-0 and the only unbeaten team left in the MPSF. And they’ve gotten to that point by dominating a tough schedule.
To wit: BYU has not gone five, won half of those matches by sweeps, and has beaten ranked teams Loyola, Lewis, Penn State (back-to-back) and, last week, No. 5 UC Irvine twice on its home floor.
Friday night BYU plays back-to-back nights at home against visiting No. 3 UC Santa Barbara of the Big West (6-0). While UCSB hasn’t played as tough a schedule — the Gauchos’ lone win over a ranked team was a sweep last week at Stanford — this should be one of the showcase matches of the young season.
“Rick (McLaughlin) has a very good team,” said fifth-year BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said, pointing out how fortunate his team is to play Big West foes in back-to-back weekends in preparation for the regular season.
“We have these agreements on these weeks to go back and forth. Next year Irvine will be in Provo and we’ll be in Santa Barbara. It’s gonna be a battle in Provo. It’s exciting.”
UCSB will have to play its best, because BYU is, simply, loaded, especially in the form of high-flying lefty opposite Gabi Garcia Fernandez and dominating outside Davide Gardini.
Fernandez, the 6-7 junior from San Juan, Puerto Rico, has 123 kills (4.39/set), hits .321, leads the team with 28 aces, is third in digs with 46, and third in blocks with 26.
“Gabi’s got a big, heavy arm,” Olmstead understated, “and he’s going to continue to develop.”
This past summer he played with the Puerto Rican national team in the Pan Am Games in Peru.
“We played teams like Brazil and Cuba and it was a really good experience,” Fernandez said.
Gardini, a 6-9 sophomore outside from Ravenna, Italy, leads with 126 kills (4.50/set), is hitting .425, and has eight aces, leads the team with 60 digs (2.14/set) and is second in blocks with 29. Interestingly, Gardini’s parents were in the wedding of former USA great Paula Weishoff, now the head coach at Concordia-Irvine. His first name is pronounced “Da-vee-day,”
“He’s really flourished,” Olmstead said.
That’s not lost on Gardini.
“I have more experience and personally I’m passing better,” Gardini said. “I’m digging better and blocking I’m on time, but mostly it took getting used to playing in another country.”
He said it was different playing with contemporaries instead of older teammates.
“And now everything is coming much easier,” Gardini said. “
But BYU can come at you in many other ways, too. Felipe de Brito Ferreira, a 6-9 junior middle from Maringa, Brazil, not only has 38 kills, but leads with 31 blocks, one solo. The other middle, 6-9 Finnish senior Miki Jauhiainen, has 18 kills and 26 blocks, two solo.
Zach Eschenberg has 41 kills and the 6-6 senior outside has 10 blocks. Senior setter Wil Stanley, back in more ways than one, is averaging 11.56 assists, is second with 49 digs, and has 18 blocks, one solo. Stanley is a product of volleyball-power Punahou High School in Honolulu (alma mater of Barack Obama and beach stars Taylor and Trevor Crabb, among many others), but his brother, Cougar freshman Jon, went to Kaiser High where their father is the coach.
Last year, BYU struggled to a 13-12 finish, 6-6 in the MPSF.
“We were missing that experience,” Gardini said.
“This is a result of learning from last year,” Fernandez said. “Last year we were down and had so many new players and it was tough implementing a new strategy and having the new players get used to it. So we had a chip on our shoulders.”
He said the team worked extra hard in the summer.
“We trained like crazy,” Fernandez said. “Davide went back to Italy and we saw videos of him just passing and passing and passing. This year he’s an amazing passer. I’m really proud of that guy..”
He also had big praise for 5-8 sophomore libero Mitchel Worthington, who took last year off to go on his Mormon mission.
“And the spirit and the energy that this team brings to each other, even at 5 in the morning in the weight room is amazing,” Fernandez said. “Everybody wants to be here, everybody wants to be with each other, we have lunch together all the time. It’s more of a family and a brotherhood than a team. You put that on the court and it’s just amazing.”
Stanley agreed, pointing out that the starting lineup is basically the same as last year. In his case, he broke his ankle in the 12th match of the season and was lost for the year. Brody Earnest filled in for him as a freshman and Stanley said the 6-4 sophomore from Laguna Niguel, California, pushes him hard in practice this year.
“We’ve really come together and spent a lot of time together in the offseason outside of practice, just bonding with each other,” Stanley said. “We have this connection … We feel like a family this year and it’s changed the way we play volleyball.”
In the matches last week at UC Irvine, the Cougars won in four on Wednesday behind 19 kills from Fernandez, who hit .517, and had three aces and four blocks; and Gardini, who had 16 kills, two aces, seven digs and five blocks. They won in four again on Friday and Fernandez had big numbers with 22 kills, four aces, 11 digs and four block, but he hit .216. Gardini had 16 kills, 12 digs and four blocks, and Eschenberg had 14 kills, hit .444, and had six digs and four blocks. And Ferreira had 10 kills with no errors to hit .833 to go with two digs and four blocks.
“I was really proud of the way the rest of the team responded with Gabi and Davide not having their typical offensive performance,” Olmstead said. “We’ve needed to get our middles more involved and we did. We can expect more that from Felipe. He’s been coming around and is still a little on the mend. That was a good match for him. Zach is coming around. We need those guys to do that.”