BYU men’s volleyball: Seniors wrap up regular season

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The end of the BYU men’s volleyball season also marks the end of the road for four seniors on the squad.

Those four seniors — Rusty Lavaja, Ryan Boyce, Steve Rindfleisch and Erik Mayer — all traveled different paths leading up to these final weeks as members of the BYU volleyball team, but each has enjoyed the ride.

BYU coach Chris McGown said he appreciates each player’s unique contribution.

“All those guys have brought an interesting mix of personality to our team,” McGown said. “Some of them are quiet, some of them are loud, some of them are intense, some of them are a little bit more relaxed, but each has contributed in their own way individually. They all brought different things that are special in their own way.”

Russ Lavaja spikes the ball against Cal Baptist earlier this season. The Cougars will lose four seniors at the end of the season. (Photo by Sarah Hill)
Russ Lavaja spikes the ball against Cal Baptist earlier this season. The Cougars will lose four seniors at the end of the volleyball season. (Photo by Sarah Hill)

Lavaja started virtually his whole career at BYU. He started 23 of 30 games his freshman year and has been the defensive anchor ever since as the primary middle blocker. Lavaja has also been the emotional leader of the team, firing up the other guys and dancing around in celebration after big points. Players have expressed how much they needed him when injuries have forced him to miss matches. He even took a medical redshirt between his sophomore and junior seasons because of injury. Lavaja has enjoyed his time as a Cougar.

“It’s been unreal,” Lavaja said. “There’s just so many (memories) here in the Fieldhouse, like the first game where it was so loud I couldn’t hear myself think, all the way to the personal relationships with individual guys that have been on the team and with the coaches that have brought so many opportunities. You can’t replace that, it’s just unreal.”

Lavaja has also been described by teammates as the team’s comedian. Every funny experience on the volleyball team has involved him in some way or another.

After Lavaja graduates, he plans on pursuing a career in volleyball, “at least for a little while.” His goal is to land a spot on a professional team. He will graduate with an economics degree in April.

Unlike Lavaja, Boyce had to wait his turn to become a starter and get consistent floor action. He played behind setter Joe Kauliakamoa for several years. Eventually, Kauliakamoa graduated and Boyce moved into the position of full-time starter at setter. Waiting for his chance to start helped him become the leader he is today.

“It’s been a learning experience for sure,” Boyce said. “You know, not playing so much and having to watch people play has been a chance for me to realize life doesn’t come easy, and sometimes you don’t get your way. But you’ve just got to keep going, keep pushing yourself and keep playing hard.”

Fans know Boyce for his spectacular mustache over the past few seasons, something fans and family members have grown to love. It is now a part of his identity.

Boyce is tough and fiery on the court but laid back and relaxed off it. He said he can’t believe graduation is right around the corner and got a little emotional talking about his final weeks as a volleyball team member. McGown has helped Boyce prepare for this moment and for new opportunities.

“Just saying what (Coach) Chris (McGown) said, it’s about the journey,” Boyce said. “You can look at results and you want to accomplish things, but you’ve got to enjoy the journey. You’ve got to enjoy the time that it took to get there. That’s something that I’ve learned is you’ve just got to enjoy it. Just enjoy it, have a good time, keep it in perspective.”

Boyce graduates in April with a degree in physical education and coaching. He is hoping to land a job as a P.E. teacher and eventually coach volleyball.

Rindfleisch, an opposite hitter, started his college volleyball career at San Diego City College, a community college in California. While there, he earned first team honors in the Pacific Coast Conference but never was able to make great connections or develop chemistry off the court with his teammates there. BYU noticed him and he eventually transferred to continue his volleyball career.

“I was very fortunate to get into BYU,” Rindfleisch said. “It’s been a blast playing with these guys and being able to see them improve, along with me, over the past three years. The culture that we’ve been able to build here as a team has been very special. Out of all the teams that I’ve played on, this is the only team I can honestly say everybody cares about each other. We love each other, and we want the best for each other.”

Mayer is majoring in neuroscience and plays both the opposite and outside hitter position. He hasn’t seen a lot of action in his BYU career but greatly contributes to the practice squad and the chemistry of the team.

Each senior talked about the relationships with the guys on the team as the most important aspect of his volleyball career at BYU. Each has developed a strong relationships with every team member. Boyce plans to maintain these relationships far down the road.

“I don’t know where we’re going to be in 10 years, but I think we’re all going to stay in contact,” Boyce said. “If you make a relationship and you don’t keep it going, to me that’s kind of sad. Everyone’s pretty excited to see where everyone else is going to be in 10 years. That’s going to be interesting, and hopefully we have a reunion and see each other.”

Each senior also spoke fondly of practice. The culture of team practice is one of learning and developing as a player. Boyce described every practice as the highlight of his career at BYU, the environment where he developed relationships and had a good time.

“People yell at each other on the team, people get pretty upset and people push each other,” Boyce said. “That’s what I’m going to remember and miss the most. Coming out to practice, being with your buddies and playing ball is probably the best part about this experience.”

Lavaja has high hopes for the end of the regular season and the post season. He said previous national champions have spoke to the team, preparing it for the rest of the season.

“They tell us, ‘This is what practice is like,’ and I think we’ve taken a lot of that to heart and we’ve really stepped up,” Lavaja said. “I think we can continue to carry that if we come to practice every day and still keep that intensity up, and I think that’s what’s going to pull us through. That’s what will take us as far as we can possibly go. No regrets.”

McGown said he has enjoyed watching the seniors grow and develop throughout their BYU careers.

“I think about just how lucky I’ve been to be part of this team and part of the group,” McGown said. “Those guys in particular are four really, really solid guys, and I’ll miss them.”

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