No. 1 BYU men’s volleyball wins back-to-back matches

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The BYU men’s volleyball team took down UC Santa Barbara and UCLA this weekend led by balanced attacks from Taylor Sander, Ben Patch and Rusty Lavaja, who returned from injury for Saturday’s game.

BYU (7–2) needed all five sets to defeat the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (5–8) Friday night in a long, hard-fought and satisfying victory. The Cougars started off slow, dropping the first set. They got back on track in games two and three in dominating fashion.

Taylor Sander spikes the ball against UC Santa Barbara. The Cougars took down the Gauchos after five sets. (Photo by Elliot Miller)

“I don’t think we were ready to play as fast and as nasty as they did,” setter Ryan Boyce said. “I think we can be composed, but you also have to bring some emotion, some fire, some adrenaline into the game. I think we’re getting it. It comes with time.”

BYU coach Chris McGown emptied the bench in the third set, bringing out middle blocker Nick Valencia, setter Tyler Heap and outside hitter Erik Mayer as the Cougars beat down UC Santa Barbara 25–13.

Set four turned out to be a little bit closer. The Cougars played it tough and had an opportunity to close out the match but ultimately fell 27–25. Despite the setback, Boyce was pleased with the team’s effort.

“No one was freaking out, everyone stayed calm, (and) in the huddles we came together,” Boyce said. “No one was really yelling or getting frustrated. We just came together and said, ‘Hey, next ball we’re going to side out. No worries.’ So I think that’s a big step in a good direction for us, you know, to stay positive.”

The fifth set brought the best out of the Cougars in an all-out, do-or-die effort. The effort and intensity was there, exemplified by one play where outside hitter Josue Rivera threw his body over the scorers table to save a point halfway through the set but came up empty. He walked back onto the court to a standing ovation from the crowd. Sander finished off the Gauchos with six straight serves, and the Cougars won the set 15–10.

“The best thing for me about the night was how composed we played in the fifth set,” McGown said. “The guys did a really nice job holding together. We played really clean volleyball, and for us to do that in a pressure situation in a fifth (is) really positive. I think those are important moments for us to experience, and the way we stepped up was great.”

Saturday the Cougars trounced UCLA in a three-set sweep. Lavaja returned after a two-game, one-week absence to lead the Cougars over the No. 6 UCLA Bruins (8–7).

“It’s good to get back,” Lavaja said. “You’re out one game and it’s all it takes for you to miss it more than anything.”

Lavaja reported his ankle is “doing great” and “feeling really good.” McGown was happy Lavaja was back in the lineup too.

“The biggest factor for us is his emotional energy,” McGown said. “He’s just this wild card on our team that the guys love playing with. He has fun out there and he gets excited, and it’s infectious. You can’t help but go out and play great when you’re playing with him.”

The Cougars went the whole match without a bench substitution with Lavaja back in the lineup, a far cry from what they had experienced the previous few games, and quickly put away the Bruins 25–22, 25–13, 25–23.

“I think we do a really good job as a staff getting some things figured out after we see a team for a set,” McGown said. “Then I think teams continue to try harder and do something outside of their comfort zone.”

McGown said he believes his team is starting to grow up and figuring out how to win.

“We didn’t make mistakes that hurt us,” McGown said. “That’s a sign of a team that’s maturing a little bit, that’s starting to understand how we want to play. We can play really good volleyball if we’ll make other teams beat us and not beat ourselves.”

The Cougars improved to 6–1 in conference play and have the best record in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.

The Cougars hit the road for the first time this season, traveling to California next weekend to face Pepperdine Friday and USC Saturday. Both games start at 7 p.m. PST.

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