By Stephen Vincent
Three seniors will play their last regular-season home matches this weekend when the third-ranked BYU men”s volleyball team plays a young Long Beach State team, one of the Cougars” main rivals.
The seniors will be joined on court by Chris Gorny, who returns tonight from a broken hand injury.
Like Long Beach State, BYU is a team full of underclassmen – except at the outside hitter position.
The Cougars” three seniors, Rafael Paal, Jaime Mayol and Luka Slabe, have split time at the two outside hitter positions throughout the season.
“The seniors are our leaders on and off the court,” BYU coach Tom Peterson said. “What standards we have directly reflect who and what the seniors are. They have committed much of their lives to volleyball and especially the last years to BYU volleyball. We appreciate them for all their efforts on behalf of the team and the school.”
Of the three, Mayol, who was a redshirt on the 1999 team that won BYU”s first national title, has been at BYU the longest. Mayol, a native of Caguas, Puerto Rico, has been a fixture in BYU”s lineup since his freshman year in 2000, when he averaged 4.01 kills per game.
Mayol and Slabe both played on BYU”s 2001 national championship team. Paal joined the BYU squad the next year as a transfer from Cal-Baptist.
Paal, who is from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, switched from middle blocker to outside hitter this season, and the three have competed for playing time since.
Paal has adjusted to the outside hitter position well and has been an exciting player to watch with his creative ways to kill a ball.
Slabe, who is from Ljubljana, Slovenia, has had a solid season despite fighting various injuries, while Mayol has been a dependable hitter.
Long Beach State, ranked No. 4, plays three freshmen, but the 49ers have been hot lately, winning three of their last four.
“This year, they have some of the best freshmen players in the country,” Peterson said.
Long Beach State has been led recently by freshman Robert Tarr. Since being inserted into the 49er lineup in mid-February, Tarr has averaged nearly four kills and 1.5 digs per game.
But it”s the upperclassmen on the court that the 49ers usually depend on. Jeff Wootton, Scott Touzinsky and David Lee have combined to record 63 percent of the team”s kills this season.
Touzinsky is clearly the 49ers” star, averaging 4.4 kills per game.
The 49ers” other two freshmen, setter Tyler Hildebrand and middle blocker Duncan Budinger, have also played well.
“In the past few years, there have been some heated exchanges of words between Long Beach and BYU,” Peterson said. “This team has become one of the big rivals for BYU, so this will add to the atmosphere of the game.”
If BYU can play well enough, tonight won”t be the seniors” last time on the floor of the Smith Fieldhouse. The Cougars can clinch homecourt advantage for the first round of the MPSF tournament by winning just one match this weekend.
Following last Saturday”s loss to Cal State Northridge, BYU (16-5 overall, 14-4 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) has fallen significantly behind first-place Pepperdine (18-2, 15-1).
The Cougars and Waves meet in two weeks, but even with a BYU sweep, the Cougars still finish one game behind Pepperdine-unless Stanford, UC Irvine or Pacific manage to upset the Waves before then.
Perhaps the real race is to be the MPSF runner-up. BYU is clasping on to a slim lead over Hawaii (18-5, 12-5) for second place in the MPSF.
“We are one game ahead of Hawaii in the loss column and Hawaii should not lose any of their remaining matches,” Peterson said. “So it is important for us to stay ahead of them, especially if it comes down to an at-large bid for us. Mostly, we need to be playing well heading into the playoffs.”