At the end of this story is a video interview Rob Espero did with Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe about the season ending because of the coronavirus.
Less than two weeks ago, undefeated No. 1 Hawai’i played host to undefeated No. 2 BYU, as they played back-to-back matches on a Thursday and a Friday. BYU stunned Hawai’i with a sweep on the first night, but the Rainbow Warriors got some redemption Friday winning a five-set show-stopper of a match that went all the way to 19-17 in the fifth.
The series was the highlight of the 2020 season. But it also turned out to be one of the last matches played before the NCAA made the decision to cancel the remainder of the season for all winter and spring sports in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Not to make light of what’s going on throughout the world right now, but if God has a sense of humor, that was it,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “We were undefeated, they were undefeated, and we went out there and the collective volleyball world was watching.”
And of course, having won the first match in three and then losing narrowly in five, BYU, which earned the No. 1 ranking in last Monday’s AVCA Division I-II top 15 poll with a 17-1 record, thinks it established itself as the best team in the country and the favorite to win the 2020 national championship — although that title will forever remain vacant.
“There’s always going to be the what if, what could have been,” Olmstead said. “Like I said to the guys, I believe they are the best team in the country. There’s no question in my mind. They’ve proven that. They’ve played the best schedule, they went on the road against the best teams, they won here at home every match they played in, and their body of work thus far was exactly that, the No. 1 team in the country.
“So, it does make it a little more difficult because in the end, there is going to be that part of unfinished business, but if they can dig deep and find some sense of pride and happiness and some sense of joy in the work in the effort that they’ve put forward.”
BYU is not the only men’s volleyball team that feels it’s been robbed of a potential national-championship-winning season. Hawai’i, despite the straight-set loss to BYU, was ranked No. 1 for most of the season and dropped just two sets in the first 14 matches of the season.
“We knew we had a good group returning as we have the last few years and were just looking to see how far we could take it,” Hawai’i coach Charlie Wade said.
When asked how he visualized the season ending, he was quick to say, “Winning the national championship.”
Dan Friend — coach at Lewis, which ranked No. 5 with a 15-4 record in the March 9 AVCA poll — also mourns the opportunity for an especially talented group to prove itself.
“That’s what’s tough,” he said. “You get special groups. You can’t always compete for it each year, but you get years where the groups are just a little bit better. We certainly had one of those groups this year.”
The nation’s No. 3 ranked team as of March 9 — and the previous seven weeks of the season — UC Santa Barbara also deserves to be in that conversation of teams that had to let go of what was a very promising season. The Gauchos end the season 14-2 after starting out on a six-match sweep streak and sustained their only losses at the hands of BYU.
Laden with seniors, the 2020 UCSB roster features seven players who have now played their last college volleyball match (that is, barring an NCAA decision to grant an additional season to winter/spring sport athletes, but that is definitely another story). Five of those seven started for the Gauchos this spring.
That group includes opposite Keenan Sanders, who, with 113 kills on 188 attempts and just 15 errors, boasts the nation’s second-highest hitting percentage (.521). Senior outside hitter Randy DeWeese ended his career with back-to-back Big West player-of-the-week awards, and setter Casey McGarry quarterbacked UCSB to the fifth-best hitting percentage in the nation (.333) and led the team with 139 digs. Starting outside Roy McFarland and libero Grady Yould are also members of the Class of 2020.
The Gauchos were playing some really good volleyball and likely had a solid chance at making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. Just two weeks ago, in a feature on this very website, UCSB coach Rick McLaughlin (who could not be reached for this story) looked forward to possibly getting a third chance at BYU down the road.
“The good thing is that our guys know exactly what they need to do to win,” he said. “And I hope and pray that we play BYU again, because I know our guys would love it. They’d be ready.”
Last Thursday (March 13), when word of the cancellations started coming down, first from conferences and then the NCAA itself, BYU was preparing to board its flight to Northern California for a Friday-night match at Stanford.
A player saw the news of the Pac-12 cancelling its basketball tournament — and all other spring sports, competitions, and championships — come through on his smartphone and notified his coach, so Olmstead dialed up Stanford coach John Kosty to check on the status of the next day’s match.
Turns out, that was the first Kosty had heard of the Pac-12 cancellations. Unable to get a hold of his athletic director, who was no doubt in closed-door meetings trying to hash everything out, Kosty told Olmstead and his team not to get on their flight.
Just minutes before they were to board, the team turned around and left the airport.
“Delta was awesome and literally went on the plane and took off all our bags,” Olmstead said, “so luckily we didn’t get out to California and then have to turn right around, which has happened to some of our other sports — (BYU’s softball team) went all the way to Alabama.”
But even heading back to Provo, the finality of everything hadn’t quite set in. That didn’t happen until a team meeting that evening after the coaches had a chance to speak to the administration and were able to finally pass down the word to the players that the season was officially over.
“It was probably the toughest meeting that I’ve ever had to be a part of for sure,” Olmstead said. “Everyone was in tears, and the guys stuck around and embraced the seniors for a while after the meeting was over and just told them thanks and how much they meant to them.”
Olmstead made a point to acknowledge the wider impact and suffering caused by coronavirus around the world, saying, “This is just a sport, this is a game.”
“But to these student athletes,” he continued, “it’s their life, and it’s something that for them at their age, they’ve put their heart and soul into. We can’t thank them enough from the coaching staff side for all that they’ve put into it and all the trust they’ve given us and the belief they’ve put into our team and our culture.”
Hawai’i made it all the way to Southern California before hearing that its double-header with Cal State Northridge would not happen, and then soon after that the entire season had been nixed. On Friday when I spoke to Wade, he and his team were at LAX working their way back to Honolulu.
“Everybody is disappointed the season is over,” Wade said. “We knew we were good enough to win this year, and we wanted to see it through.”
The week before, those two matches versus BYU brought almost 7,000 fans to the Stan Sheriff Center for Thursday night’s match and more than 10,000 for Friday’s. That level of support, which of course Hawai’i is used to and known for, made it easy for Wade to summon gratitude, even in the face of great disappointment.
“The takeaway from this whole thing is just how grateful I think we all are to do what we love to do and have so many people be appreciative of it and have such a positive impact on so many people’s lives,” Wade said. “Certainly grateful to have just an amazing group of young men that are fully committed to being the best and grateful to the leadership at the university, they give us this opportunity to represent the state. This certainly reminds us not to take any of this for granted because it can go away at any moment.”
Friday morning, Friend was still processing. He and his team got the news on Thursday just hours before they were scheduled to drive across town for a match versus Loyola.
“(The team is feeling) like they got smacked in the face,” Friend said. “I got a couple phone calls (Thursday) night, and I tried to tell them to take a deep breath.
“I tried to put some things in perspective. The bigger picture of looking at, hey, the guy down the street that works a 9-5 job, his kids might be sent home and how is he going to support them and take care of them at the same time … It’s OK. We have our health. We’re in a good spot. You guys have certainly been privileged to play volleyball at a high level and be in a unique situation. So it’s not diminishing what is happening but putting some of that in perspective.”
And yet, Friend expressed frustration at the NCAA’s decision to cancel all winter and spring sports, even those with championships almost two months down the road.
“I get the immediate kind of, hey, we need to cancel everything, but the unfortunate part is why are we not doing a reassessment April 1?” Friend said.
In the meantime, Wade, Olmstead, and Friend all retain hope of getting back in the gym with their teams sometime this spring and at least training the underclassmen for the seasons to come.
“It’s kind of like, that’s the whole goal of what we do, be able to train our athletes,” Friend said. “If for some reason there’s not anything to play for at the end of this year, I kind of respect that, but at the same time, we have kids coming back that want to get better for next year.”