Things rarely get lonely atop the Mountain Pacific Sport Federation in men’s volleyball.
Just ask BYU. No sooner were the Cougars ranked No. 1 then No. 7 Long Beach came to Provo, Utah, last Friday. Five tough sets later BYU had its first MPSF loss.
The result more than validated the pre-match thoughts of sophomore Jaylen Reyes, whose team bounced back the next night with a 3-1 victory over Cal State Northridge.
“In our league anyone can beat anybody,” Reyes said. “You can throw the rankings out the window. Anyone can beat anyone.”
And they usually do.
The current MPSF rankings show BYU and defending-champion UC Irvine tied for No. 1. Long Beach is third, followed by Stanford, Pepperdine, UCLA, Penn State and USC. It’s a safe bet that at least three slots in the final four will come from that group.
“It’s fun to be ranked No. 1 because it generates a lot of interest in our team around the community and in the volleyball world,” third-year BYU coach Chris McGown said. “But for us the most important thing and what we try to hammer home with the team is are we the hardest-working team right now? Are we the team that’s on the steepest upward trend in terms of improvement? I think the guys have bought in and understand it and we’ve had a really good start to the season.”
BYU is 6-2 overall, 5-1 in the MPSF, all the while enjoying the friendly confines of Smith Fieldhouse thanks to some scheduling changes, including flipping the matches with UC Santa Barbara and UCLA. These Cougars might have forgotten how to pack a suitcase, since they don’t go on road until an at-Pepperdine and at-USC trip on February 15. By then, they will have played all 10 of their matches at home in Provo.
“We’re going to have to become road warriors,” McGown said.
In the meantime, they’ve been pretty warrior-like at home, led by super-leaping outside hitter Taylor Sander, a 6-foot-4 junior from Huntington Beach, Calif., who had 21 kills against Long Beach and 18 more against Northridge.
Senior Russ Lavaia, a 6’7” middle blocker, ranks third in the MPSF in blocking (1.52 per set) and fifth in hitting percentage (.474) as BYU out-blocks its opponents almost 2-1. And senior setter Ryan Boyce is averaging 10.31 assists per set.
Certainly he knows to get the ball to Sander.
“The best thing about him, is, well, obviously he has some great physical gifts, but he has a great volleyball brain,” McGown said. “He sees the court and makes savvy plays … When you ask him to make a change mechanically, within five reps he’s doing the thing you asked him to do.”
Opponents marvel at the 2012 first-team All-American’s leaping ability and his whip of an arm. Sander said he’s worked on his passing, too, this past year.
“He’s probably the best player I’ve ever played with,” Reyes said. “The sky’s the limit for that kid. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw him in Rio [for the 2016 Olympics].
“The best way I can explain it is he makes spectacular plays ordinary because of his God-given ability, plus he’s the best volleyball player I’ve ever been around. He always makes the simple plays look super easy and the extraordinary plays look simple.”
Sander, who earlier this season was the AVCA National Player of the Week, finished last season with 435 kills and hit .395. This season he’s already got 124 kills and is hitting .352.
He said he always wanted to play at BYU.
“Being a member of the [Mormon] church and I liked the culture here and I like that we have really great crowds and the teachers care about you a lot,” said Sander, already BYU’s all-time service aces leader in the rally scoring era with 94.
That was before, of course, McGown was a BYU player. One of his teammates was current Minnesota women’s coach and former U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic coach Hugh McCutcheon. They both played for McGown’s dad, Carl, who, interesting enough, is now one of the BYU coaches, a volunteer assistant.
“It’s great having them both in the gym and really enhances the way we can practice and get better each day,” Sander said. “The way that they work together and learn from each other is great for all the guys.”
This year, the Cougars will welcome any edge they can get. Their season came to an abrupt end in 2012, falling to Stanford in four sets, 33-35 in the last set, in the MPSF semifinals.
“We kind of crashed under those mental pressures,” said Sander, who had 27 kills that night. “Hopefully we’ll be mentally strong when it comes to big matches and when things are close in games and points need to be scored we’ll be confident in ourselves to put the ball away, make good passes, and play really solid volleyball.”
BYU’s season ended 24-7 and the lessons from that loss weren’t wasted on Reyes, the libero from Hawaii who said simply:
“Our thing this year is there are no little things.”
There’s a long way to go, but it’s not unfair to ask, can BYU be the best team in the nation?
“When the playoffs start rolling around, we’re more interested in that question,” McGown said. “But right now, and we talk to our guys about this all the time, we’re more concerned with the process.
“Bill Walsh wrote a book called The Score Takes Care of Itself. So we talk to the guys about controlling what we can control and we can’t control rankings and to a large extent we can’t control winning and losing. Sometimes there are just better teams and sometimes they get lucky breaks and a few points go their way and you don’t win the match. So what we can control is how hard we work every day in practice.”
The path doesn’t get any easier, of course. UC Santa Barbara, ranked 15th, comes to Provo on Thursday and then Saturday No. 6 UCLA visits BYU. And then comes the first road trip.
“It’s going to be like last year and come down to one or two points,” Reyes said, looking ahead to the postseason. “One team is going home early and one team is going to the final four. And the same thing will happen at Pauley Pavillion (in the NCAA Championship) at the end of the year, that one or two points will decide who’s No. 1 and who’s No. 2.”