In May of 2013, the BYU men's volleyball team appeared to have put itself in position to capture its first national championship since 2004. The Cougars had the combination of talent, depth and experience to be considered the favorite when they took on Cal-Irvine in the title contest.
But after besting the Anteaters twice in the regular season, it was Irvine who made the plays in a shockingly-easy final, defeating the Cougars in three games.
So it's not really surprising that BYU senior All-American outside hitter Taylor Sander wants to get the job done in 2014.
"We want to be champions," he said earlier this week. "That's what every program is shooting for. This is my last year and I'm going to push as hard as I can to get back to the national championship and try and win."
But Cougar head coach Chris McGown said the main benefit from last year isn't a sense of unfinished business; instead it's knowing what it takes to compete at the highest level.
"The sense I get is that they have a sense of how much we gave last year and how hard it is to marshal those resources," McGown said. "They understand how much we gave in hours, energy, emotion. With that understanding, they understand the workload that is required. More than anything, it's a sense of we know how much to give and I have to ramp up to give that. It's an incredible investment."
BYU will kick off conference action in the Mountain-Pacific Sports Federation this weekend when it hosts Northridge on Friday and then welcomes No. 1 Long Beach State to Provo on Saturday.
The Cougars are currently ranked No. 9 after dropping their first two matches of the year last weekend against Lewis and Loyola (Chicago).
“We learned a lot about ourselves,” Sander said. “We also learned that we're not far from being a really good team. Loyola and Lewis are really, really good teams this year and I think they were a little underestimated. Loyola went to the Final Four last year and played a really tough match against UCI, then they returned all their players, so they only got better. We hung with them but we have a couple of things to work on and it's exciting for us to point out those things on video and talking with the coaches.”
McGown said he’s seeing his players zero in on things they need to do better.
“Losing those matches has taken us in a bit of a different direction,” he said. “I think if you win those, you tend to gloss over some mistakes. Losing has brought a sharper focus to our coaching and to the players' attentiveness. It makes them work harder.”
BYU fans might be surprised at the early struggles but both Sander and McGown said this is often how things go. The 2013 team was somewhat of anomaly because it came together really quickly.
“Last year we were really good from the start,” Sander said. “Right away, you could tell we were going to be a dominant team. I think this year it's going to be a little bit different. We are going to have to develop as a team as the season goes on. We're going to need to grow stronger.”
There is also some shuffling going on as guys figure out how they are going to fit in for the Cougars this season, something that was more clear-cut last winter.
“This year, roles have a bit more blurry definition,” McGown said. “We're still trying to find ourselves. There are still some unanswered questions.”
Part of that is because of the key players BYU lost from last year and what they took with them.
“The three guys who aren't in our lineup — Rusty Lavaja, Ryan Boyce and Ben Patch — were phenomenal volleyball players,” McGown said. “They each brought a different skill set but the interesting thing about each of them was that they brought an intensity and an energy that hasn't been duplicated by the group this year. Our assistant coach said that we graduated maybe 50 percent of the energy and so we're trying to fill that in different ways. That has been the most noticeable by-product of their absence. It's a different energy.”
Sander, as a senior and an All-American, knows he needs to be the guy who carries some of the responsibility to fill some of that void.
“The coaches have pulled me aside and told me they want me to be that guy who is out there leading this team by example, vocally and all that,” he said. “They need me to take more on my plate this year as far as a leadership role because we lost players like Rusty and Boyce, who were very experienced and fiery players. They need me to push the guys to become the best they can be in all aspects of the game.”
The Cougar head coach said he’s found it to be harder to teach the “soft stuff” than technique.
“There is a lot of soft stuff surrounding this team in terms of chemistry, communication, leadership, work ethic, mental approach and what it means to be a great teammate,” he explained. “As a coaching staff, I think we're really good at teaching the mechanics and the Xs and Os. The hard part for us has been teaching the ethereal attributes of being a good athlete.”
That might be the most significant factor in BYU performing at a high level because on the floor the Cougars have a lot of talent.
Sander is a potent offensive weapon and McGown believes if his guys can pass well, the offense will be successful. Defensively, Sander thinks the block will be solid but wants to see the team do a better job on getting digs.
“We think defensively we're not where we need to be,” he said. “We realized while in Chicago that we need to start becoming defensively sharper. I think that will help us a lot. That's something we'll definitely be working on.”
The goal, according to McGown, is to get the team giving its best effort.
“We talk about what the standards are and what it looks like to practice at those standards,” the Cougar head coach said. “That's what we want to try and define as our goal. We like the concept of John Wooden where the right questions is whether you gave your best effort. That's what we're after every single day. We think that going through the process of practicing great, the results will take care of themselves.”
This team knows what it takes so now it’s just a question of whether BYU can put all the pieces together to reach the level it requires to get back in the national title discussion.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or email@example.com. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd.