The sellout crowd in the Smith Fieldhouse was almost silent. The Cougars were losing to fifth-ranked USC in the fourth set and the point deficit was growing. Coach McGown called a timeout to call a play: give it to 15. The sophomore outside hitter wearing jersey 15 stepped onto the court and delivered back-to-back-to-back kills. The crowd came alive and BYU rode the momentum to win the match and become the top-seeded team in the nation.
“Taylor Sander is a fix-it player,” teammate Jaylen Reyes said. “When there’s a bad pass or play or we get in trouble, we know to give it to Taylor and he’ll fix it. He gets us out of trouble. We know if we’re struggling we can go to him. When we need a big point, he’ll come up with something.”
Taylor Sander led the Cougars last season with 435 kills. He has been named to the AVCA All-America team in both of his years in college and, this summer, became the youngest member of the United States World League volleyball team. At only 20 years old, Sander has achieved more than most volleyball players ever will, but he isn’t satisfied with his accomplishments yet.
“I really want to play professional volleyball, be on the Olympic team and win a national championship,” Sander said. “It’s all on my shoulders from here. I have the athletic ability to get where I need to, I just have to have the work ethic to back it all up. I can’t be okay with where I’m at. I have to keep working hard and keep improving. I have a lot to do to get better.”
Working hard and playing with an older crowd has been the story of Sander’s athletic career. He started playing volleyball at 10 years old, but was forced to play against 14-year-old players because of the way the divisions were set up in his hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif. In order to compete with these bigger, stronger and older boys, Sander had to dedicate himself to practicing constantly.
“Two to three times a week, he would sacrifice four hours of his time to his club volleyball practicing and then tournaments on the weekends,” Sander’s mother, Kera, said. “He began to excel at his sport and he grew to love competing at this level. Even when he wasn’t practicing, we’d have a volleyball within reaching distance and he always wanted to pepper in the backyard. … He has an unreal work ethic.”
That work ethic helped him to record games with more than 20 kills on 12 separate occasions and lead the Cougars in service aces with 44 last season. Sander is a big-time player with a big-time set of skills, said BYU Head Coach Chris McGown.
“He’s got great vision,” McGown said. “He sees the block and knows where to put the ball. He can hit from anywhere on the court to any place on the court. He’s got a toolbox of hits at his disposal … the guy is a singular athletic phenom, but what everyone seems to talk about most is how high he gets off of the ground.”
And, according to Sander, even his jump height is up for debate.
“The athletic department has me recorded at 43 inches,” Sander said, “but during a match, when the fans are screaming and the adrenaline is pumping, I think I jump even higher than that.”
Sander is a stand-out collegiate athlete, but so were the rest of the players on the US World League roster. The other members of the US team have varied overseas experience with professional teams and even includes seven Olympic gold medalists and the MVP of the 2008 Olympic games, Clay Stanley.
“Taylor is the only guy on the team who is not a paid professional,” McGown said. “Imagine being a college sophomore and getting invited to play on the U.S. basketball team with Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. Imagine how you’d feel. It’s nearly unheard of.”
International experience and working out with some of the greatest volleyball players in the world will only aid in Sander’s development as a player, McGown said. The coach said he is excited to see Sander’s new skills and drive when he returns to BYU next season. Though, the hype of playing for the national team has not forced Sander to forget his teammates and their goal for the upcoming season: a national title.
“Taylor is a once-in-a-generation type of player,” Reyes said. “Players as gifted and talented as him don’t come around much. He’s an absolute pleasure to play with. Sports are full of guys that are great on the court and terrible off of it, but Taylor is a great guy and a team player … our goal is to win a national title this year.”
With a summer full of World League tournaments and November marking the start of the national championship hunt, Sander said he is looking forward to a little time to relax and hang out with his friends.
“I’m just a normal kid who works really hard at volleyball,” Sander said. “I like to have fun. Volleyball is not my whole life. I like to do regular stuff and hang out with people too.”
Sander will have to wait a while longer to take it easy, though, because as long as he’s on a volleyball team, players and coaches will keep calling his number.