Coming into the season the BYU men's volleyball team had high expectations. Last season BYU went into the NCAA championship ranked #1 in the country and was favored to win the title. The Cougars however lost in three sets (albeit three close sets) to the Anteaters of UC Irvine. Coming in second place isn't bad though, and the cougars only lost four seniors to graduation, and only two of those were starters (MB, Russ Lavaja and S, Ryan Boyce), so the Cougars were in good shape. Except their star player was a Freshman. Ben Patch left on his mission and now the Cougars are searching to fill the void he left (418 kills last season).
Still BYU attained a pre-season ranking of #3 and still had two time all-american Taylor Sander leading the charge, not to mention strong recruiting classes for the past several years. All the hype was on BYU's opening weekend road trip to Chicago taking on #7 Loyola and #10 Lewis, two of the few ranked teams outside of the MPSF. By now you have probably heard that BYU lost both games, being swept by Loyola 0-3 and winning only the second set against Lewis falling 1-3. It was a highly disappointing start to a much hyped season and the Cougars fell to a #9 ranking.
For the uninitiated let me give a little background into BYU volleyball and the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF). If you know this stuff skip down to the break. The MPSF is the volleyball version of the football SEC or basketball Big East. The NCAA only ranks the top 15 mens volleyball teams in the country 9 of those 15 are from the MPSF. Here's the current top 15:
Long Beach State
UC Santa Barbra
IPFW (Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne)
Those teams in bold are in BYU's conference and BYU will play all of them before the season's over. So when Long Beach State was ranked #1 and lost at BYU last Saturday, it was a huge game. Also when BYU travels to Irvine this friday it will be a huge game, and on Saturday when BYU plays UC San Diego (who also received 3 points in the poll) it will be a pretty important game (not quite so huge though). Then in the two weeks following they'll play Pepperdine, USC, and Stanford. What I'm trying to say is, now that conference play has started, EVERY GAME is hugely important. It is a grind every single weekend and if BYU can just win most of it's games they will stay ranked.
I think the real goal for BYU is to stay in the top 5. Then come April, BYU will need to perform well in the MPSF tournament, make it to the final and maybe win. The NCAA tournament invites six teams, four auto-bids will go to tournament winners from three conferences: MPSF, MIVA (Loyola or Lewis), CCAC, and EIVA (Penn State). The other three are open to top teams, likely all three from the MPSF. So staying in the top 5 almost guarantees BYU a spot in the tournament.
The key is to keep winning, and replacing Ben Patch is a big part of winning, except coach McGowan doesn't want to try to replace him with a person, but with a team. BYU has a very young team, just three seniors, and only three juniors. The sky is the limit for this team if they can continue to grow together as a team, learn from their early mistakes, and if each player is committed to growing and improving.
The current stars for the Cougars are Taylor Sander and Josue Rivera, they need to stay healthy and keep doing what they do best, kill it. Even without Ben Patch, BYU has Sander and Rivera, plus two sophomores who have shown some serious promise (Phil Fuchs and Matt Underwood). Handing out the assists for the Cougars is Tyler Heap who is just a sophomore and played very few minutes last year. Getting Tyler to mesh well with the hitters (and especially the middle blockers) and gain confidence in their offensive attack will allow the Cougars to diversify their attack selection and bring out the talent of their deep roster.
So back to the games at hand, Friday's night game against UC Irvine (reigning national champions) is a big one, and sadly doesn't have any online watching options, but check back here for a recap following the game. Saturday night's game against UC San Diego will be broadcast online through the UCSD athletic's web site. If you're taking a winter trip to Southern California (which I highly advise) stop by Anteater or Triton campus and support our Cougars!
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