The moment had arrived. The Jaws movie theme song blared over the loud speaker, and all 3,308 fans at the electric Smith Fieldhouse enthusiastically clapped their hands in a shark-biting motion, signifying match point for the Cougars. BYU led 14–13 in a decisive fifth set.
A BYU Cougar win, a Stanford Cardinal loss, and the pinnacle of Taylor Sander’s storied volleyball career at BYU hung in the balance. After all, Stanford was the only team Sander had faced and not defeated.
Sander let out a sigh of relief after opposite hitter Ben Patch killed the match point, giving Sander his first win over Stanford as a Cougar and snapping BYU’s six-game losing streak to the Cardinals dating back to 2010. It was certainly a struggle to get that first win, and although Sander had one of his best games of the year, he nearly let the Cardinals back in the game with an attack error late in the fifth set.
“(Sander) had a chance to put us up 14–11 with a swing down the line,” BYU coach Chris McGown said. “He hit it out, and when he does something like that in a critical moment, he feels bad about it. But that’s what we’ve talked about all season, it isn’t just one guy and if I make a mistake, it’s OK. I got the rest of the guys on the team to pick me up and carry me. We did that tonight.”
The Cougars were down late in the second set after losing the first set. BYU gave up two unforced points to Stanford, the first being a yellow card to libero Jaylen Reyes, and the second being an illegal substitution on opposite hitter Steve Rindfleisch. Those two errors left the Cougars down 20–23 and potentially facing a 0–2 set hole. Five straight points from setter Ryan Boyce at the service line and two Sander kills gave BYU the 25–23 set win, tying it at one a piece.
“It was unbelievable really; I was just so proud of the guys for that,” McGown said. “I told them at halftime, ‘besides our best efforts to sabotage this set for you guys you came through and won the set.’ (They showed) so much character, grit and perseverance going through all that. We handicapped them a little bit and they still managed to find a way.”
Stanford stole the third set before BYU dominated the fourth set, setting up the deciding fifth set.
Two players from each team had monster games. Patch led the way for the Cougars with 26 kills and six digs, and Sander had 25 kills, seven blocks, five digs and three aces. Outside hitters Brian Cook and Steve Irvin led the way with 23 kills and 7 digs each for the Cardinals. McGown said they talked about Cook and Irvin having big games before the match and that “we were barely good enough to beat them.”
The story of the night was service errors, and each team struggled to serve all night, giving its opponent every opportunity to stay within striking distance. Stanford committed 13 service errors while BYU committed 17.
“(Friday night against Pacific) we served great, we didn’t have too many errors,” Boyce said. “Sometimes stuff like that happens. You just got to battle through. We practice serving all the time, so we’re getting better.”
The win against Stanford came a night after the Cougars swept the University of the Pacific Tigers in the Smith Fieldhouse 3–0. It was their first game back at home after a weekend in California. Patch led the Cougars with 13 kills and gained a greater appreciation for the home crowd after a weekend away.
“(Being away) was nerve-wracking, especially since I’ve never done that before being a freshman,” Patch said. “You have to really dial it in and be mentally focused the whole time. Being home and being able to play in front of friends and family is so much better, and you just feel the crowd and the vibes and just play a lot better.”
The Cougars were never in any danger against the Tigers, never allowing them to score more than 20 points in any of the three sets despite poor play from Sander. He recorded only five kills on the night, breaking his streak of 16 straight matches with 10 or more kills.
The Cougars came out on top in both matches this weekend despite injuries to key players. Middle blocker Rusty Lavaja re-tweaked his ankle in warm-ups Saturday and sat out the match against Stanford. Boyce played both games with a black eye after being elbowed by Lavaja last weekend, and he dislocated a finger on his right hand going up for a block on Friday.
The Cougars travel to California next weekend to take on No. 1 ranked UC Irvine and UC San Diego.