PROVO — It's been 17 years since BYU men's volleyball won a national championship in 2004, but never has it felt so close as when the Cougars landed in Columbus for this year's tournament with the No. 2 overall seed.
Of course, BYU has been close to its fourth title before, only to fall agonizingly short of the ultimate goal. This year could prove to be no exception, with No. 1 Hawaii still the top-rated team in the country despite a loss in the Big West Tournament semifinals more than two weeks ago.
That was the Warriors' first loss of the season. Prior to the stunning upset by UC San Diego, you had to go all the way back to last season to find another loss — in the islands, during a two-match split with the same BYU team that now sits on the opposite side of the seven-team bracket at the Covelli Center on the campus of Ohio State University.
Barring an upset, the two teams will likely meet again in the NCAA Tournament finals Saturday night (6 p.m. MT, ESPNU). But upsets happen regularly in men's volleyball, where only five conferences sponsor programs at the Division I-II level and BYU — which has been ranked among the top programs in the country for most of its varsity existence — has found plenty of ways to fall before the final goal, but upset or otherwise.
So it could be with UC Santa Barbara, which faces Big West rivals Hawaii in Thursday's semifinals, or Lewis, the MIVA champions facing the Cougars in the second semifinal (6 p.m. MT, NCAA.com).
That doesn't diminish BYU's drive, though.
"I can't even talk about the drive for this program, to go and grab a national championship," said outside hitter Zach Eschenberg, who was 8 years old the last time BYU won a national title. "The number of years, from watching as a kid to joining the team, of being right there and not being able to do it has motivated all of us.
"We know we can do it. We want it bad. There are a ton of good teams, so we have to earn it. But it's a huge motivating factor, knowing that we've been close and we have the potential to do it."
A year after the COVID-19 pandemic ended the college season prematurely when BYU had as good of a chance as its ever had, BYU coach Shawn Olmstead kept the band together and brought back seniors like Eschenberg, setter Wil Stanley, middle blocker Miki Jauhiaianen and others to join with natural senior opposite Gabi Garcia Fernandez for another go at the championship.
But the path starts with Lewis, the Division II power from Romeoville, Illinois that will face the Cougars in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004 — the last of BYU's run of three titles in six years.
The Flyers rank No. 5 nationally with 13.10 kills per set, No. 3 with a .345 hitting percentage, No. 2 with 2.892 blocks per set and No. 4 in opponent's hitting percentage (.204).
"We're going to continue to play our game," said Olmstead, who played libero on BYU's 2001 and 2004 title teams and was runner-up to Lewis in 2003. "We're going to be properly aggressive. I'm confident in the guys. It's going to be two great teams with two great game plans. There's no doubt in my mind we're going to see great matches tomorrow."
Fresh off a sweep of EIVA champion Penn State, the Flyers (21-2) are looking for their first title since 2004 and sixth tournament win overall Thursday. The Flyers are led by senior outside hitter Ryan Coenen, a .347 smasher who averages 4.42 kills per set.
Lewis also sets its middles significantly more than BYU — 611 times this season, or 325 more than BYU, according to Off the Block — while both Tyler Mitchum and TJ Murray average more than one block per set. And then they'll have to manage a server like Garcia Fernandez, one of the top attacking servers in the country capable of running off a four- or five-point run from the line.
"That's certainly a talented team, but certainly excited to compete," Lewis coach Dan Friend said. "I think we have the ability, if we can manage a greater server like Garcia Fernandez, we can run any option.
"It's not about sticking a perfect pass, but managing a great server. They have a couple of guys who can serve with pressure. But we've been passing with four all year long … and that certainly helps a bit."
The Flyers are just 2-18 all-time against BYU, but took a win from their most recent postseason match against an MPSF team, 3-1 against then-No. 5 USC in 2019.
BYU (19-3) hasn't played since a sweep of Pepperdine in the finals of the MPSF Tournament on April 24, a win that locked the squad into the No. 2 seed and first-round bye (in addition to playing the winner of Lewis and the play-in match between Penn State and Belmont Abbey).
The Cougars have the legs, but the Flyers have the momentum. Both sides can claim advantages from the scheduling arrangement, including BYU, which practiced in Columbus on Tuesday and Wednesday ahead of the semifinal.
"I actually kind of like this break," Stanley said. "We needed to work on some things, and this extra week gave us time to help me connect with my hitters and fine tune every little thing."
NCAA men's volleyball tournament
No. 1 Hawaii (15-1) vs. UC Santa Barbara (16-4)
First serve: 3 p.m. MT
No. 2 BYU (19-3) vs. No. 3 Lewis (21-2)
First serve: 6 p.m. MT
First serve: 6 p.m. MT