Sander leads No. 1 BYU men’s volleyball in back-to-back wins over Cal Baptist

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All-American outside hitter Taylor Sander broke out of his recent slump and led the BYU men’s volleyball team to victories over the No. 12 Cal Baptist Lancers Friday and Saturday night.

BYU held on for the win in Saturday’s match in four sets even though Cal Baptist outplayed BYU for the better part of the match after the Cougars swept the Lancers in Friday’s match. BYU coach Chris McGown saw a different Cal Baptist team on Saturday but knew the Cougars would be ready to play.

“They’re a team where some nights they’ll get it going and some nights they won’t, and tonight they really had it going,” McGown said. “The best thing about our group is the way they’ve been able to maintain some cohesiveness through some tough, difficult circumstances in matches. They just believe in themselves. It was absolute witchcraft that we were able to manufacture a win looking at the box score.”

Josue Rivera and Rusty Lavaja celebrate a point in BYU's win over Cal Baptist. (Photo by Sarah Hill)
Josue Rivera and Rusty Lavaja celebrate a point in BYU’s win over Cal Baptist. (Photo by Sarah Hill)

The Cougars stumbled out of the gate in Saturday’s match, dropping the first set 20–25. McGown recognized his team came out flat but rallied his team after the first set. They didn’t drop a set after that.

“We weren’t overconfident but were flat for sure,” McGown said. “Offensively, we just tried to find out what they were doing with us and tried to match up a little bit better offensively with them. More than anything, it was just, ‘Hey, let’s settle down and play.’ We were hitting balls in dumb spots, were hitting balls in places where bad things can happen.”

Both teams battled back and forth in the second set, and the Cougars looked on the verge of falling into a 0–2 set hole after Cal Baptist took a 24–23 set-point lead. Sander tied the game at 24 with a kill and again at 25 with another kill. BYU scored the last three points of the set to win 27–25 and to tie the match at one set a piece.

Cal Baptist erased a two-point deficit to tie the third set at 24. BYU put the game away 26–24 with a kill from Rusty Lavaja and an attack error from Cal Baptist.

Opposite hitter Ben Patch struggled all night and was subbed out at the start of the fourth set for opposite hitter Matt Underwood. Patch “didn’t have the kind of match” the BYU coaches had hoped, although he was named back-to-back AVCA National Player of the Week.

The Cougars held on for a 25–23 win in the third set, finishing off the Lancers with kills from Sander and Lavaja. McGown said the stress is high when the team wins matches as close as this.

“You try to stay composed,” McGown said. “We as a staff understand at a very high level how important every single win is going to be coming down the stretch. So when I see things slipping a little bit, leads not safe or having to play from behind, the stress level goes pretty high because I understand what’s at stake.”

After struggling on the road, Sander had a big weekend against the Lancers. He had a game-high 16 kills in the match Friday and tied a career-high with a hitting percentage of .750. He also led the Cougars in Saturday’s match with 17 kills and four digs, breaking the all-time ace service record for any era in BYU history. Outside hitter Josue Rivera chipped in nine kills in Saturday’s match

BYU swept Cal Baptist Friday night in three quick sets (25–13, 25–21, 25–20). BYU improved to 15–3 all-time against Cal Baptist, and 2–0 in its first year as a member of the MPSF. BYU improved to 15–3 on the season and 14–2 in conference play. It is currently No. 1 in the MPSF standings.

Rusty Lavaja believes this team is special.

“I think we can be as good as we want to be,” Lavaja said. “We can be as good as we tell ourselves we can be, so it’s just a matter of our mentality and our focus every time we get on the court.”

The Cougars have a bye next week before traveling to California to face Cal State Northridge and Long Beach on March 22 and 23.

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