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Columbus, Ohio • BYU junior Ben Patch joked about his new bleach-blonde hairdo as opposed to last year's "taxidermy on my head," while coach Shawn Olmstead discussed his favorite brand of bubble gum and senior Jake Langlois said one of the advantages to being married is he doesn't have to "stay out and date" and can go to bed at 9 p.m. every night "with no issues like that."
To say the third-seeded BYU Cougars are loose and carefree as they approach Thursday's huge NCAA men's volleyball tournament final four match against second-seeded Long Beach State would be an understatement. First serve is at 4 p.m MDT at historic St. John Arena, and the winner of this rubber match between longtime rivals will face the winner of No. 4 Hawaii and No. 1 Ohio State on Saturday for the national championship.
Jokes and good-natured ribbing flowed easily among Patch, Langlois, libero Erik Sikes and their coach in Wednesday's 20-minute news conference, a far cry from a year ago at Penn State's Rec Hall when the Cougars were big favorites and had a more no-nonsense approach.
Olmstead's team, which improved to 25-4 with Tuesday's 3-0 pummeling of Barton, is considered the underdog Thursday because LBSU swept them 3-0 on March 25 in Provo, a night after the Cougars had eked out a 3-2 decision over the 49ers at jam-packed Smith Fieldhouse.
"We respect every single team that we play, and approach [LBSU] with the same mindset and respect, definitely," Patch said. "I think mentally we are just excited to play a good Long Beach State team."
Long Beach State (27-3) placed four players on the AVCA All-America First Team: outside hitter TJ DeFalco, setter Josh Tuaniga, middle blocker Amir Lugo-Rodriguez and libero Andrew Sato. BYU had just one first-team All-American, Langlois.
"We learned we have to keep the same energy and momentum we had the first night if we want to compete with them," Sikes said.
A year ago, BYU rolled past LBSU 3-1 in the NCAA semifinals before falling 3-0 to Ohio State. The Cougars lost star middle blocker Michael Hatch to graduation, however, while all of LBSU's big guns are back, and better than ever. Confidence will be a big factor in the rematch.
"Both are going to be two confident teams from a great volleyball conference going to battle in the Final Four," Olmstead said. "What a great setting, and what a great match it should be."
Long Beach State hasn't played since it defeated Hawaii 3-1 in the MPSF tournament championship match on April 24, but coach Alan Knipe said that will "absolutely not" put the 49ers at a disadvantage against a BYU team that practiced in St. John Arena on Monday and played in it on Tuesday. LBSU played Ohio State here on Jan. 28, falling 3-1 to the No. 1 Buckeyes. BYU and USC are the only two other teams to have defeated the 49ers.
Langlois, on the other hand, said playing Tuesday can only help the Cougars.
"We got four days to play in a gym that none of us were familiar with, so I think it is an advantage," he said.
Tuesday, Olmstead started German Tim Dobbert at opposite hitter and brought two-time All-American Patch off the bench in the second set. Patch, who has said he is moving on from BYU after this season, completed the match, posting five service aces along the way.
Olmstead isn't saying who will start Thursday.
Patch, who served his church mission in this area, said he is still "trying to grapple" with not being a starter after being one his entire career at BYU until he suffered a groin injury in early February.
"It is a new thing for me," he said. "It has been humbling in a lot of ways."
He was fantastic against Barton, but the Bulldogs are nowhere close to Long Beach State, which will leave the MPSF next season because the Big West has added volleyball. Knipe said the 49ers will continue to schedule BYU because it is "too important an experience to miss out on" for his players.
As for the Cougars, they just want to take down LBSU when it matters most, like last year.
"The message is always going to be the same," Olmstead said. "Our guys will compete. Whatever approach we had from that night when they beat us, we will learn from that. These guys understand. They know how good that team is, but they are confident in themselves, too. They know how good they are."
And that it will take their best to advance to Saturday's championship match.
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NCAA Men's Volleyball Championships
At St. John Arena, Columbus, Ohio
Thursday's Semifinal Matches
No. 3 BYU (25-4) vs. No. 2 Long Beach State (27-3), 4 p.m. MDT
No. 4 Hawaii (27-5) vs. No. 1 Ohio State (30-2), 6 p.m. MDT
Saturday's Championship Match
Semifinal winners, 5 p.m. MDT (ESPN2)