Taylor Sander had a summer of memories that will last a lifetime.
Already one of the best players in the history of BYU’s storied volleyball program, Sander added to his resume by participating on the U.S. Pan-American Cup team. He claimed the MVP award with his outstanding play, helping the U.S. win the gold medal.
“I was super surprised,” the All-American said about being the MVP. “I was like, ‘What? I got MVP?’ I just played my game and that’s how things turned out.”
It was no small feat considering he was the only non-professional player on the team.
The Pan-American Cup took place in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic this past summer. The team was selected from a group of younger players who had been with the national team, but hadn’t made the Olympic team — or were, as Sander put it, the “B-team.” Sander was assigned to the team because he was the youngest on the national team. And he made the most of the situation.
“They sent me on that trip, and that was awesome,” Sander said. “We got to train for two weeks with the squad. Then we went over to the Dominican Republic and just crushed everybody. It was a super good experience.”
Sander gained valuable experience playing and practicing with some of the best volleyball players in the country. His understanding of the game improved; communication with his teammates improved; and his understanding of how to take care of his body improved. He even got to train along his childhood hero and three-time Olympian, Reid Priddy.
“I was going against him every day,” Sander said. “It was intimidating. I was kind of star-struck, but I was just trying to learn as much as I (could), and I think I did. Being in the gym with those players that have been really successful helped me see things from a different view.”
Sander said being the youngest and newest player on the team made him a target for getting yelled at when he messed up, and the guys were intense and vocal on the court. Off the court was a different story. Sander said that they were all nice guys and very understanding of him. They constantly gave him words of confidence and raved about his future. That confidence carried over into the games, and Sander gave his teammates all the credit for winning the MVP award.
Sander went into the summer with the goal to improve every aspect of his game. BYU men’s volleyball Head Coach Chris McGown, noticed specific improvements Sander made to his game when he started coaching him again this season.
“The biggest thing that was a benefit for him is an understanding about his role on this team as a leader,” McGown said. “It’s really hard if you are the best player but don’t want to lead because those two are inherently tied together. If you’re the best player on a team, the other guys look at you (to learn) how to act, how to practice, how to behave in the locker room and how to do everything.”
Sander noticed a few of those same things in himself.
“I feel like I’ve grown up a little bit,” Sander said. “Freshman and sophomore year I was more, ‘Ah, this is super cool being here,’ but this year it’s (more) like, ‘What can I do to help my teammates get better and be an example to them?'”
Sander and the U.S. team were a perfect 4–0 against the competition from the rest of the world going into the championship match against Argentina. That competition included national teams from Brazil, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico. Playing consistently well put a lot of pressure on the team to bring home the championship, and Sander felt some of that pressure.
“I was super nervous,” Sander said. “I was playing against the best players from the other countries. It was really nerve-racking, (but) I’ve played volleyball long enough to know this (was) another game. I mean (it was) a big game, but just having those guys around me (made) it a whole lot easier.”
Sander and the U.S. ended up sweeping Argentina to claim the gold and stand on the podium to sing the national anthem. He described it as a great experience, but he can only imagine what it would be like on the biggest stage — the Olympic stage.
The future looks bright for Sander after the experience of a lifetime over the summer and another year of eligibility at BYU. The possibilities and opportunities are endless for him being one of the best young volleyball players in the world.
“The sky is the limit for him,” McGown said. “I’m assuming he’ll have a nice professional career, lots of opportunities, and that’s all you can ask for is choices. He will have a college degree, and when he’s done playing, he can do whatever he wants. I anticipate long stints with our national program, the Olympics, a professional career and whatever he puts his mind to.”
Sander has his sights set on the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — his next opportunity to get a spot on the Olympic team and help the U.S. win gold. He said the Pan-Am Cup was the perfect measure of where he is at.
“Playing with them over summer helped me judge where I’m at compared to all those other guys,” Sander said. “I saw things that I need to improve on in order to play in Rio. I want to get better in certain ways and hopefully from playing with them over the summer I can continue to work hard and get better so that I can earn my spot.”
Still, Sander is content with where he stands right now. He understands his shot at a professional career will come eventually, but right now he is leading the No. 1 team in the nation and couldn’t be happier. Sander has led the Cougars to a 5–1 start, including a 4–0 conference record. He has recorded a .366 attack percentage so far this season and has double-digit kills in every match. He is also coming off a AVCA player of the week award, the second such award of his career.
“Here it’s like a brotherhood,” Sander said of his BYU team. “It’s just more fun. Seeing how stressful people got when they weren’t traveling with the U.S. team, fighting everyday for a spot on the roster, for money for their family — it’s a lot more tense, and there’s a lot more on the line I feel like. I love college. Playing for BYU was one of my dreams and I still love it. So I prefer this right now, but hopefully one day I can get there and make a career out of it.”