Middle blocker Rusty Lavaja broke out of his recent slump to help the BYU men’s volleyball team top the No. 1 ranked UC Irvine Anteaters (4–3, 1–3 ) Friday night, winning 3–1 before sweeping the No. 13 UC San Diego Tritons (3–4, 2–2) Saturday night.
The Cougars were led on Friday by solid all-around play from their starters, giving the crowd of over 5,000 fans an impressive show. Outside hitter Taylor Sander led the way with 16 kills and eight digs, while Lavaja and outside hitter Josue Rivera chipped in 12 kills a piece. Opposite hitter Ben Patch added 9 kills, and setter Ryan Boyce posted 47 assists. It was Lavaja’s and Rivera’s best performances of the season.
“I got like twenty-something sets; that’s the most I’ve ever gotten this year by far,” Lavaja said. “It just goes to show Ryan Boyce’s level of trust in me and counting on me to get it done. Hopefully I can continue doing that for him.”
Rivera got the starting job against UC Irvine, and it paid off for the Cougars.
“(Rivera) got the nod tonight primarily because of his serving and the fire he brings,” BYU Head Coach Chris McGown said. “He just brings a ton of energy and a ton of passion. We needed that because we got some guys that are smoothed out personality-wise, and it’s fun to have him flying around and being a little spark plug for us.”
After a nearly flawless 25–20 first set, the Cougars struggled in the second. After trailing 14–18 late in the second set, BYU pulled within one at 21–22 before McGown called a timeout. The emotional set resulted in a 25–23 victory for the Cougars.
“(Coach) just wanted us to refocus a little bit, look each other in the eyes and tell each other ‘We’re going to do this thing one play at a time,'” Lavaja said.
BYU played a poor third set, falling 19–25, but bounced back in the fourth set 25–22. A strong presence in the middle all night, junior middle blocker Devin Young had the kill that put away the match for the Cougars. McGown was pleased with the way the team responded in the final set.
“We challenged them between (the third and fourth) sets, and they responded really well,” McGown said. “Fifth sets make me nervous. I was curious to see how our team (would) come out and how we (would) react. It was nice to see us shake off that third, play a little better, and take it in the fourth.”
The Anteaters were led by middle blocker Scott Kevorken, who tallied 19 kills. Outside hitter Jeremy Dejno contributed 16 kills and 10 digs.
The Cougars followed Friday’s victory with a dominating win Saturday night, sweeping the UC San Diego Tritons. BYU improved to 33–0 all-time against UC San Diego. Sander led the effort with 11 kills, five blocks and three digs. Lavaja contributed six kills and eight blocks in the victory, including five blocks in the first set. The Cougars ended up with more blocks than kills, totaling 31 blocks to their 30 kills.
The Tritons never scored back-to-back points in the first set, losing 25–15. BYU never trailed in the first and second sets, and the Tritons’ first lead came in the third set, going up 3–1 and 6–4 before BYU ran away with the victory. UC San Diego struggled to stay in the match at the end of the third set, cutting a four-point deficit to a 24–23 margin, but Lavaja put the game away with the final kill.
UC San Diego was led by outside hitter Carl Eberts, who finished with game highs of 13 blocks and seven digs. Outside hitter Vaun Lennon contributed nine kills.
Back-to-back aces in the second set by Sander put him in the Cougar record books with 93 aces.
BYU packed the Smith Fieldhouse Friday, with 5,038 in attendance, and McGown was pleased with the showing.
“I can’t say enough about the fans’ support; it’s unmatched in college volleyball,” McGown said. “Every once in a while there’s a timeout or a break and I look around and think, ‘This is so much fun to be a part of.’ It makes me happy for the guys that we have this kind of support.”
BYU improved to 5–1 on the season and 4–0 in conference play. The Cougars have the week off before hosting Long Beach State and Northridge Feb. 1 and 2.
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