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PROVO — The top-ranked BYU men’s volleyball team never got a chance to win a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which canceled the season along with all NCAA spring sport championships.
Clearing the conference’s top honors will have to do.
Outside hitter Gabi Garcia Fernandez was named MPSF Player of the Year, and head coach Shawn Olmstead took Coach of the Year honors Thursday, as announced by the league.
A two-time NCAA All-American and three-time all-MPSF first-team honoree, Fernandez averaged 5.46 points and .918 aces per seat to lead the NCAA in a historic junior season. He broke the Cougars’ single-season aces record after just 18 matches, and was destined to improve on that mark after leading BYU to a 17-1 record at the halfway mark of MPSF play.
Paced by Fernandez, the Cougars were playing like a national title-contending team. On Thursday, they were recognized as one.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that our men’s volleyball team was going to win the national championship this year,” Olmstead told BYUtv. “But it’s all right. They’ll do it next year.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind that our men’s volleyball team was going to win the national championship this year. But it’s alright. They’ll do it next year.”— BYU Women’s Volleyball (@BYUwvolleyball) April 2, 2020
-Coach Olmstead on @BYUSportsNationhttps://t.co/n3crT8eEUL
Fernandez was one of four Cougars named to the all-MPSF first team, joining senior setter Wil Stanley, junior middle blocker Felipe de Brito Ferreira and sophomore hitter Davide Gardini.
All four will be back next season, if Stanley has his way, after the NCAA allowed teams to adjust as needed to accommodate the return of every senior for another season of eligibility.
Stanley has vigorously said that he wants to come back, and the BYU program wants him back, as well.
Same for Fernandez, who was sure to attract professional interest overseas after a standout junior campaign but will return to school to finish his degree in Latin American studies.
“I made a promise to my parents and to myself that I would finish college, no matter what,” Fernandez told KSL.com. “I’m sticking to that. I’m getting a degree, and then pro will come.
“It’ll be in the same place, but I am staying in college until I graduate.”
Stanley cited “unfinished business” as his reason for coming back to join his younger brother Jon for another season.
“I feel like I haven’t given a full season to BYU,” said Stanley, who averaged 10.74 assists per set. “There’s just some unfinished business that I have. It’s hard for me to say no to that.
“If the NCAA gives us the go-ahead, I think it will be hard for me to say no to BYU, to the fans, and to how much I’ve been accepted into the BYU family. It’s tough to leave, when you know you have to leave. You never really want to go.”
Senior outside hitter Zach Eschenberg earned all-MPSF second-ema honors, and senior middle blocker Miki Jauhiainen was named all-MPSF honorable mention.
The Cougars were peaking at the right time, coming off a road trip to previously No. 1 Hawaii that included a sweep of the Rainbow Warriors one night followed by a five-set loss less than 24 hours later in what many consider to be the best collegiate volleyball match of the year.
“The gratitude that we got to play that match, that we got to be a part of that,” Olmstead said. “If you look back, that’s just a jewel for this season. What a wonderful experience that our guys got to go through.”
Like Olmstead said, the Cougars will just have to come back and do it again next year. Even if that means walking on, for some.
“I will be in school, and I was planning on being at BYU another year to finish school,” said Eschenberg, whose wife Kennedy is on the women’s volleyball team. “If I have the option to play during that last year, I will definitely take it.”