Taylor Sander is an amazing athlete.
If you don't really follow BYU volleyball, you might not have heard of him, but he's actually one of the most traveled athletes on any BYU sports team. Volleyball is not the most popular sport in America (it probably comes in around sixth or seventh) but lets imagine it is for a second. Let's say that we're in an alternate universe where the AVL (my made up name for the American Volleyball League) takes the place of one of the big three sports (NFL, NBA, MLB). Instead of Mike Trout being the young rising star of MLB you have young AVL standout Taylor Sander. Instead of teams salivating over the chance to draft Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins, you have the Huntington Beach Hunters (my made up volleyball team) loosing every set on purpose so that they can draft Taylor Sander. And instead of Colin Kaepernick narrowly losing the super bowl in his rookie season... you have Taylor Sander's championship hopes dashed by the Annapolis Anteaters.
Taylor Sander is the 21 year old volleyball sensation who has traveled the world with the US Men's and US Junior Men's National teams, and has Olympic gold medals in his future. Yes, in an alternate universe Taylor Sander could be the highest paid athlete. (For more on Taylor, check out Matt Curtis' Know the Bro piece on him.)
But for now, he's content with leading the BYU Cougars to six consecutive wins, including a classic against Stanford last Friday night. Stanford came to BYU ranked 6th in the nation and were ready to back up their ranking with solid play. BYU (then ranked 7th) however had an additional advantage of playing in front of 5,200 screaming Cougar fans at the Smith Fieldhouse.
In the first set BYU and Standford kept the battle close, but BYU was able to get some separation and fed off the momentum and crowd energy to a 17-11 lead. At that point it was all Stanford could do to make it a close set, but BYU still won 25-20. In the second, BYU were the ones who fell behind 11-17 and struggled to contain the excellent play from Stanford. The Cardinal have a roster full of great players, I was particularly impressed by their 6'8" setter who was never afraid to go up for block and spread the ball out nicely. Stanford won the second set 25-19.
Stanford carried momentum into the third set and had an early four point lead. Slowly the beast that lives inside Taylor Sander's body came to life. Stanford would get a few points ahead and Sander would lead them back. Back row kills, off the block kills, big blocks (a season high five) and hard hitting from their star player kept BYU in the set. Finally the ice cold killer decided it was over and shot a service ace right through the Stanford defense to win the set, 25-23. The momentum (and 5,200 screaming fans) were with BYU and though the Cardinal made a game of it, BYU came away with the fourth set (25-21) and the win.
After the game Sander commented that there's not a better place to play in the world, than in the Smith Fieldhouse, and gave a heartfelt thanks to all those who supported them.
Saturday night BYU played Pacific, who had never won a game in Provo in 15 tries. BYU couldn't take the night off entirely though as the Tigers came out in the first set and kept it close for most of the game. The Tigers led 18-17 when BYU went on a 8-1 run and sealed the set 25-19. Through the second and third sets Pacific continued to play well, but they were no match for Sander and the Cougars who ended up with a season high in team hitting percentage (.377). Sander led the way with recorded 12 kills with zero recorded errors.
BYU is now ranked #4 in the nation and is traveling to play #3 Pepperdine and #5 USC this weekend. Another huge week for Men's Volleyball, even if it isn't the most popular sport in the country (or even on campus). Each and everyone of BYU's players continues to improve, and they will need to in order to survive their upcoming five game road trip (and beyond). But like in set three against Stanford, BYU plays hard and keeps it close, and then Taylor Sander comes to life and leads them to victory. Let's hope Sander can continue his stellar play, GO COUGARS!!