LOS ANGELES — Taylor Sander’s final kill attempt never made it past the outstretched hands of Scott Kevorken and Zack La Cavera. The ball sped toward the floor, and Ben Patch’s desperate attempt to hit it back into play went flying into the stands, ending BYU’s season.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
“I figured we were in for a long match,” head coach Chris McGown said. “Until that last ball went into the stands, I was sure that we were going five and were going to prevail. It just didn’t end up that way.”
Each player from University of California, Irvine put on a championship t-shirt, danced around and held up the first-place trophy. Each player from BYU looked on as if they had just lost a loved one. No dancing. No smiles. No enthusiasm. BYU was out of character throughout the match and certainly out of character following the match. After painfully watching UC Irvine’s celebrations, McGown finally put his team out of its misery by directing them to the locker room.
“I’m just disappointed,” a teary-eyed Sander said. “It’s so hard to get to this point in the season and not come out (on top). I think anybody would be disappointed, so it speaks for itself.”
This season was the most successful BYU has had in a decade, despite the loss. It pulled out close match after close match, willing its way to the first conference championship and NCAA tournament appearance it has had since 2004. BYU held the No. 1 ranking in the country for 11 weeks. At one point, it had
won 12 straight matches and 18 of 19. BYU even defeated UC Irvine twice in the regular season. But in the most important match of the season, BYU couldn’t pull it together. The runner-up trophy was the end result.
All of the hours spent in the gym, the hard work, the sweat, the blood and the tears from each member of the team were directed toward this match, the pinnacle of each player’s volleyball career. The only season All-Americans Patch and Sander would play together on the same team. The final year of Ryan Boyce’s and Rusty Lavaja’s college career. The year that for so long seemed like “the year.” It turned out not to be so.
“I’m hurting for the guys,” McGown said. “I know how hard this is. I know how much they invested. I know just the hours and hours and hours that go into doing this. Unless you’re in it, you have no idea how hard these guys work every single day and how much of their soul they commit to being a great volleyball player. I’m feeling it for them more than I am for myself.”
BYU had every chance to win the match. It clung to a 23–22 lead late in the first set, and it appeared BYU was going to squeak out a win. UC Irvine scored the next three to steal the set. BYU took a commanding 11–4 lead early in the second set, but watched it quickly dwindle into a 12–12 tie, and ultimately a 22–25 defeat. In the third set, BYU had a strong 24–21 lead with three opportunities to put the set out of reach. One UC Irvine kill and four BYU attack errors later, it was over.
“I’ll just be mad at myself for getting blocked three times at the end,” Sander said. “That’s something I’m better than, so it sucks that it happened at this point in the season.”
Ultimately, BYU was proud of the way its season went. McGown offered encouraging words to his discouraged team shortly after the match in the locker room.
“I told the boys what a wonderful season it has been,” McGown said. “It’s been a remarkable run by these guys. I am so proud of our team and for what they represent, from the way they represented BYU to the way they carried themselves throughout the season and the way they battled.”
Sander was happy with the way the season went as well, and he spoke highly of his team.
“We’ve had such a great season,” Sander said. “We did so many great things and I’m so proud of my guys on our team and proud of the program. We have so many good things to take away from this season.”
BYU will lose starters Lavaja and Boyce to graduation, and Patch to a two-year LDS mission. Despite the losses, McGown is confident that BYU can make it back to the top stage next year.
“Taylor and Josue are going to be a year better, Jaylen is going to be a year better, DY (Devin Young) is going to be a year better,” McGown said. “Then we’ve got to figure something out with Rusty’s spot and hope Tyler Heap develops a bit more. If we can figure out that opposite spot, I like our chances.”
Sander plans to work hard this off-season to give his team a chance to make it back to the national stage.
“We have so much confidence in the guys that we’re bringing back,” Sander said. “We’re just hungry to work hard next year and reach the goal we had this year, to win a national championship, but we didn’t. We got a new year next year.”
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