High-flying with championship expectations

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The BYU men’s volleyball team is off to a shaky start this season, with a two-loss trip to Chicago in exhibition games. But by upsetting No. 1 Long Beach State in Provo on Jan. 11, the Cougars are back on the rise and looking forward to what this season will bring.

“I feel great,” head coach Chris McGown said. “This is a really good group of guys, and they’re bought in, they’re invested, they’re committed and we certainly have the athleticism and the physical gifts to be a great team.”

As has been the case in recent years, the Cougars are looking to play their way into National Championship consideration. They are more determined than ever, finishing just shy of the title last year when they lost to UC Irvine in the National Championship match.

BYU players celebrate after winning the final point to clinch the 2013 MPSF Championship title. Photo by Elliott Miller.
BYU players celebrate after winning the final point to clinch the 2013 MPSF Championship title. Photo by Elliott Miller.

“Nothing comes easy in our conference and so, while I think we could be great, we’ve got to get better,” McGown said. “We know we have this big goal, but we’re trying to break it down into these manageable chunks. Be great every day in practice and when this match comes, prepare great and play great. And then we’ll see where things end up at the end of the year.”

The absence of Ben Patch — who was named a first-team All-American as a freshman in 2013, and is currently serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — leaves the Cougars searching to fill the void.

“Ben Patch was an amazing player. He was an All-American as a freshmen so it’s hard to replace a player like that who also has a lot of energy,” said Matt Underwood, an outside hitter. “We’re all just trying to pick up our level of play to make up for what we lost with him.”

As usual, the Cougars’ schedule is slated with games against championship contenders, including last years’ national champion: UC Irvine. BYU faces off against the defending champions twice before the MPSF tournament in April.

“I don’t think we look at it as, ‘Let’s go get revenge for having lost to them in the national championship,’ because you can’t avenge that,” McGown said. “It was the national championship. And it was a different team, different game, different season. More than anything we have to treat each match importantly because wins are going to be big-time important at the end of the season.”

The Cougars take every game as an opportunity to gauge how they compare to their competitors and will be treating their games against UC Irvine the same way.

“We look at it as a chance to go compete against a really high level team at sea level and just measure to see where we’re at and where we need to get better as a result of having played a really, really good team,” McGown said. “More than anything each league match is important.”

Taylor Sander (15) and Devin Young (19) leap for a block in the MPSF Championship match last season. Photo by Elliott Miller.
Taylor Sander (15) and Devin Young (19) leap for a block in the MPSF Championship match last season. Photo by Elliott Miller.

With a conference full of high competitors, the Cougars expect every match to be a fight and intend on bringing their best.

“Every team is going to push us and it’s going to be an exciting match to watch,” said Taylor Sander, star hitter for the Cougars. “Every team is really good. We’re going to have to play our best to beat them every night.”

With Sander leading the way, the Cougars are hopeful for their chances to win.

“He’s the best player in the country and I feel like he’s a great leader for our team,” said Tyler Heap, setter for the Cougars. “The talent that he brings to the court feeds a lot of confidence to all the players. You always have a shot when you’re playing with Taylor.”

The Cougars are anticipating no real surprises as far as competition goes.

“The same teams that we thought are going to be good are good. I think people underestimated Pepperdine and USC. They’re really, really good. I kind of thought they would be,” McGown said. “Everybody’s good. It’s like we thought it would be, but I think there’s a lot of volleyball left to be played so we’ll see how it all shapes out.”

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