LOS ANGELES -- Pretty much all season BYU has been considered the team to beat in men’s volleyball.
Not much has changed now that the final four is here at UCLA, when the top-ranked and top-seeded Cougars (25-4) face Penn State (23-7) in Thursday’s nightcap in the NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship.
BYU advanced with a 3-0 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament victory over Long Beach, that kept order, if you will, in the NCAA. Had Long Beach won, BYU most likely would have gotten the at-large bid that went to defending champion UC Irvine, which plays Loyola in the other national semifinal
Instead, BYU will try to win the school’s fourth NCAA title and first since 2004.
“I’ve had my share of nightmares the past week, yeah,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik cracked.
“We’re going to have to win the serving and passing battle,” Penn State junior Peter Russell said. “BYU has a very strong offensive team. When they’re in system they’re a very dangerous team, but we when we’re in system we can be dangerous, too. So it comes down to serving and passing.”
Russell, a 6’5” outside hitter, is second on the team with 244 kills, third in digs with 133, and has 42 blocks. He and his sophomore brother, Aaron, are from Elliott City, Md., and are the sons of former Penn State All-American Stew Russell. Aaron, a 6’9” outside, led the Nittany Lions with 353 kills while hitting .309, has a team-high 38 service aces, and 47 blocks.
Their team advanced by winning the Easter Intercollegiate Volleyball Association with back-to-back 3-0 victories over Princeton and Harvard. Harvard had beaten Penn State in three in mid-Feburary. When it mattered, PSU came up big and their 15th consecutive EIVA title advanced it to the final four for the 25th consecutive year. Penn State won it all in 1994 and 2008.
“It’s been an interesting year for us. We’ve got some relative youth at some key positions, but we’re playing our best volleyball the last couple of weeks,” Pavlik said.
Perhaps, but it will likely take even more than that to beat BYU.
“We understand they are a very explosive offensive machine,” Pavlik said.
That starts with Taylor Sander, the product of nearby Huntington Beach who may be the highest leaper in the country. The 6’4” junior outside hitter led BYU with 409 kills while hitting .326. He had 40 service aces and led the team in digs with 164. No wonder he was named MPSF player of the year.
But it doesn’t stop there, as Pavlik quickly recited.
“They’re going to win the warmup hitting drill,” he said. “They’re going to have some kills and everybody in the gym is going to say, ‘Wow! Did you see that?’ We’re going to have to maintain our aggressiveness and knock them off the net and make them pretty predictable.”
He paused and chuckled.
“And I don’t care if they’re flashing a sign above their bench that says ‘Taylor Sander’s getting this next set,’ we still have to figure out a way to slow him down and stop him. Whether he’s on the net or 12 feet off the net, Taylor’s a good hitter.”
And it doesn’t end there.
“Ben Patch has really had a great freshman year (381 kills, .311, 108 digs), Josue Rivera (209 kills, .314) has been vastly overrated because of the other two, Devin Young and Rusty (Lavaja) do some great things in the middle and we haven’t even talked about (Ryan) Boyce and heat heir two setters. It doesn’t make difference who’s on the court they just keep that machine running. And Jalen Reyes does a great job at libero.
“We’re just going to try to slow them down.”
It sounds good, but should Penn State win, it would be considered a tremendous upset. The two teams did not meet this season, although Penn State holds a 10-9 lead in the series. BYU won both their meetings in 2012.
“We just want to keep playing,” BYU’s Boyce said. “Volleyball is a great sport and we are having a lot of fun. This has been a great year for us as a team and everyone seems to be on the same page. So we just want to keep playing and keep staying together as a team and go from there.”
The winner gets to stay together for two more days when it advances to Saturday night’s championship match.