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Quick Sets: National Championship Preview

It’s champ week! Columbus, Ohio and the Covelli Center is the site for the 2021 National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship. What started with seven teams is now down to two. Conference Carolina champion Belmont Abbey bowed out on Monday. Pepperdine (At-Large out of the MPSF) and Penn State (EIVA champion) were eliminated on Tuesday. Big West tournament champion UC Santa Barbara and MIVA regular season and tournament champion Lewis were both eliminated in Thursday’s semifinals. All that’s remaining is 1 versus 2. Top seeded Hawai`i and second seeded BYU to play for the National Championship TONIGHT. For the Rainbow Warriors, the mantra this season has been #UnfinishedBusiness. In this week ten edition of “Quick Sets,” Tiff Wells looks at storylines from Columbus, either within the UH program or from around the nation. Year four of the Big West Conference season for men’s volleyball sees their conference represented in the National Championship match for a third straight Championship.  

By Tiff Wells

May 8, 2021 – We’ve made it to the final day of the Men’s Volleyball season here in 2021. And for one of these teams, this will be going with them back to campus.

Photo: Tiff Wells

Will the trophy come to Mānoa for the first time since 2002? Or will BYU finally win the big one and take the trophy with them back to Provo for the first time since 2004? For one fan base, a long title drought will come to an end. For the other, a long offseason to wonder if their team can be back in 2022.

All coaches we’ve heard from since the the Men’s National Collegiate Volleyball Championship bracket was announced on April 25th have all mentioned how grateful and thankful they are to even have a season, let alone making it to a National Championship. With all Tier 1 members in strict COVID safety protocols, kudos to all medical staffs as we’ve yet to have a positive case this week here in Columbus. Keeping our fingers crossed here that this stays true heading into the Championship match tonight.

As Jalen Rose says on his Jalen and Jacoby show that can be seen on ESPN, “got to give the people what they want.” The volleyball world wanted No. 1 versus No. 2 when they saw the bracket announced. These two teams have been the only teams ranked 1 and 2 since the first week poll of the 2020 season. They’ve been the two best teams. Offensively, they go 1 (UH at .359) and 2 (BYU at .349) in hitting percentage this season.

They met twice in Honolulu last season, March 5th and 6th. First match went to BYU in a dominant 3-0 sweep that some call one of the best BYU performances in program history. In front of a sellout crowd on night two and with UH down 0-2 in the match, it took a Herculean effort from Rado Parapunov (30 kills) to get UH to a 5th set and Pat Gasman sent the sellout crowd into a frenzy with his walk-off service ace. Many people felt these two teams were on a collision course towards the championship match of the 2020 Men’s National Collegiate Volleyball Championship in Fairfax, Virginia. We’ll never know if a third meeting could have happened after the 2020 season was cancelled due to the pandemic in mid-March. Some thought for players like Rado Parapunov, Colton Cowell, Pat Gasman, Wil Stanley, Zach Eschenberg, Miki Jauhiainen, their careers were done. Then the NCAA waiver saying spring athletes could come back in 2021. A lot was done by many to ensure all seniors who wanted to come back, could come back.

In January, the MPSF announced there would be a season. UH had been practicing since December 2020 in anticipation they would have a season. The Big West Conference was the last to announce they’d have a season. UH knew their schedule and it would be matches within the conference, the same for BYU within the MPSF. There would be no non-conference. League play seemed to be more important than ever before.

UH began the season 15-0 before the stunning loss at home to fourth seed UC San Diego in the conference tournament semifinal. They would wait for an at-large invitation. BYU was stunned at home in their opener to UCLA. Swept at Grand Canyon later in February and some felt BYU had lost something more than just two matches. They would win their next 12 before the regular season finale loss at UCLA. Hosting the MPSF tournament proved to be vital as the Cougars won their 8th conference tournament to receive the automatic bid.

In a normal year, the AVCA would hold the All-American banquet the night before the semifinal doubleheader. With no banquet due to the COVID protocols, teams were left to do a small “ceremony” on their own

During a break at Friday’s practice, Spectrum Sports’ Ryan Kalei Tsuji helped to hand out the AVCA All-American Awards.

427 days ago was the last time these two teams played. Coincidence that the final opponent for each was the other back on March 6, 2020 in Honolulu. The final opponent for each here in 2021 is the other. It’s been just a tad over 14 months since we saw this matchup. Tonight’s starting lineups should see a combined 10 AVCA All-Americans, six of whom are first teamers. Very rare do you see AVCA National Players of the Year go up against one another in a national championship match. Gabi Garcia Fernandez won the award in 2020 and Rado Parapunov took the award here in 2021.

Roughly a COVID limited crowd of 350 will be on hand inside the Covelli Center tonight. It’s a shame that these two programs, with the two best fan bases in Men’s Collegiate Volleyball won’t have the ability to have more fans inside. But as head coaches have said all week, and all season long, at least we’ve had a season; at least we have a Championship Week; and we get to crown a champion.

UH makes their 4th appearance in the National Championship match and second straight (1996, 2002, 2019, now 2021). A record of 1-2, having vacated the 2002 title. BYU makes their 8th NCAA final, first since 2017. They are 3-4, having lost their last three appearances, all by 3-0 scores.

Playing for the natty. This is why those who were were seniors in 2020 came back for the 2021 COVID season. Players wanting to give back to their school, their state, their community. Feeling a sense of debt to repay after being given so much in a time where much has been taken away.

You ask BYU fans about a rivalry and they are very, very quick to say it’s Utah, their inner state rival. Hawai`i may fall very low on that rivalry list for Cougar fans, if it’s even gets onto the list. But you ask a Hawai`i fan about a rival? Some will say Fresno State. Throw in those three letters of B-Y-U and UH fans will recount their favorite or depressing UH/BYU moment.

The first time Bob Wagner and UH football beat the Cougars. The dropped touchdown pass that would have been the game winner. The Chad Owens coming out party. The Craig Stutzman punt into the Aloha Stadium crowd. Tes Whitlock’s heave at the buzzer with the great Jim Leahey’s “Good! How sweet it is” call. Men’s Basketball winning the WAC Tournament in Provo at the Delta Center against BYU. Pat Gasman’s walk-off service ace. Rado Parapunov’s 30 kill-performance. So many iconic moments. So many great players with great memories and I’m sure we forgot some here. My apologies.

Chants of “Let’s Go Bows” and “B-Y-U” will echo around the Covelli Center. Is 2021 a banner season? We’ll find out later today. But remember, you can’t spell Ohio without the H-I.

Rest up Hawai`i fans. You’ll need that voice as you cheer on your Bows come Championship Saturday. One final dance of #WarriorBall21 is on the horizon #BEATbyu.