It’s the most wonderful time of the year … Men’s volleyball

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Mark your calendars. Start your countdowns. There is less than a month until the BYU men’s volleyball team’s home opener, and according to coaches and players, the 2013 squad is shaping up to be a good one.

“These guys that are going to be playing are outstanding players that are going to freak the league out and put up some nasty numbers, I can tell you that right now,” senior middle blocker Russ Lavaja said. “This team is really good, and I’m confident in the fact that we can do a lot with the talent we’re bringing in.”

After finishing the 2012 season with a 24-6 record and a No. 4 national ranking, the Cougars open the 2013 season on Friday, Jan. 4 against Hawaii at 7 p.m. in the Smith Fieldhouse.

Lavaja, junior outside hitter Taylor Sander and Head Coach Chris McGown said BYU’s schedule is packed with top-notch opponents, which will make for an exciting season.

“Every game this year is going to be good,” Sander said. “Our conference is so deep, so I think we’re going to have to push ourselves to play our best and win every game. We’re going to have to be ready every game, so people can expect to see good games every night.”

The Cougars will have to deal with a major schedule change this season that will keep the team on its toes. In years past, BYU played back-to-back Friday and Saturday games against the same opponent. This year, the majority of the team’s weekend games are against different opponents. Rather than preparing for one team per week, the Cougars will be preparing for two.

“In years past … we could do a really good job of putting together a game plan and scouting, then make a few tweaks the next night,” McGown said. “Now we play two opponents in one weekend and so we’ll have to put together two different game plans. … Players will have to digest an entire scouting report for Friday night, then go again on Saturday without a day in between to kind of figure things out.”

According to Sander, the physicality of this year’s team should help balance the stress of the new schedule.

“We’re a very physical team,” Sander said. “We jump high, we’re good blockers. … We have all the physical talent we need, which I think will be beneficial as we go down the road and our legs get tired as we get into the season.”

Sander, Lavaja and McGown agreed that the Cougars’ team chemistry is one of this team’s biggest strengths.

“In terms of culture, they’ve just bought in from top to bottom, and that’s been really important for us,” McGown said. “I thought that was an area where we needed to get better from last year — to have there be unity of purpose and have everybody have a clear vision of our goals and values. … All the guys have really just bought into that idea this year.”

This year’s team features a wide array of experience levels, with freshmen, seniors and everything in between sharing the court. According to Lavaja, that mix hasn’t hindered the team’s ability to bond and find common ground.

“It feels really good to be out there with these guys,” Lavaja said. “(Cohesion) makes you want to play harder for each other and that makes such a huge difference. It’s a part of the game you can’t quantify as a number, but it has so much value to how a team plays throughout the entire course of a season.”

Sander said both younger players and veteran team members have been working hard to earn their spots in the lineup, which has helped bolster the team as a whole.

“The guys are young and they have a lot of energy, which makes practice really good,” Sander said. “Everyone is working hard to get better, and it’s been really good for us. … We’re a lot closer this year as friends off the court, and I think that’s a really important part of this year’s team. We have the ability to communicate with each other and feel comfortable.”

Lavaja and Sander said though the team still has improvements to make before its season opener, they think the Cougars have the tools to go deep into the postseason tournament.

“You remember a lot of things from previous years, but unfortunately the thing that sticks out is that last point,” Lavaja said in regard to playing his last year of collegiate volleyball. “And it’s always been a losing point. Something I’d really like to do is end it on a winning point because that means we end up winning a national championship, and that would make me and the guys so stoked.”

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