With multiple returning All-Americans, a solidified coaching staff and a solid schedule, some college men’s volleyball observers thought this was the year that BYU would reach the pinnacle of the sport once again — thus the preseason No. 1 ranking.
But when the season came to a close with the national title game on May 5, the Cougars were in back in Provo having not even made it to the Final Four.
“There are in every season opportunities to look back and wonder if only,” said BYU head coach Chris McGown. “We wonder if we hadn’t had some of our players be hurt, if we’d played better in the match against UC Santa Barbara or in the fifth set at Long Beach State. You can always look back, but we were doing the best we can in those moments.
“You can torture yourself, but what we talk about at end of the season with the players is that if you worked as hard as you could, if you gave all you could every day, you will win the championship — unless you don't.”
McGown said that was how he saw this year for the Cougar men’s volleyball team. It was a success in the effort that the players gave.
“Sometimes an opponent is better or luckier and the breaks just don’t go your way,” he said. “You have to be satisfied with what Carl (McGown) calls the dignity of your effort. Thinking back, I’m satisfied with that. They worked hard, they were committed to each other, and they gave their hearts. It was a fun team to watch. I don't feel left anything out there on that front.”
Still, Chris McGown knows his team was very close to at least reaching the Final Four and explained that he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the loss to Stanford in the conference tournament semifinals on April 26 that ended the year for BYU.
“I've had a chance to look at the match against Stanford and it wasn’t how we usually perform,” he said. “We’ve practiced that scenario a lot. It was a tight set and in that situation we want to play clean volleyball down the stretch. We just didn't execute way would've liked.”
That marked the final match that four seniors would play for the Cougars: Middle blocker Futi Tavana, opposite Robb Stowell, setter Joe Kauliakamoa and middle blocker Quentin Smith.
“Losing four seniors is big,” McGown said. “Their experience and leadership is irreplaceable. I like our chances for next year but we will have to figure out how to replace the composure and poise that comes from having been through a lot of matches.”
The good news for Cougar fans is that All-American outside hitter Taylor Sander will be a junior, plus BYU can plan on starters Josue Rivera (outside hitter), Russ Lavaja (middle blocker) and Jaylen Reyes (libero) to all be back on the court.
“I like two of the middles we will have with some good young outsides,” McGown said. “The question is what we will do at opposite, which will be interesting to see. We’re waiting to see on injuries and we have a freshman in Ben Patch who might be too good to keep out. We are bringing back lot of good players, so I like the way the team is going to look.”
Another benefit McGown pointed out is that the current coaching staff look to be stable, meaning the players will be more accustomed to what is going to be asked of them.
“I was thrust into position where I was trying to build relationships with guys that were new to me,” McGown recalled. “I knew some of them superficially but now there needed to be some depth, and that was difficult to do with guys that were seniors. Smith in his exit interview said that I was the fourth head coach he had had at BYU. That much change put some guys on guard, so we were trying to build those relationships because you have to have that to ask guys to do things.”
McGown said that not only will it be easier with the current players but it will be reinforced as the program bring in the new recruits. It’s a process that he hopes will pay dividends through the offseason.
“All of the guys have to be committed to be better, because then guys develop wonderfully and they surprise you,” McGown said. “One of our messages is that next year starts right now. We want them to get into training and play a lot of volleyball over the summer to be ready for next season.”
As a former player, McGown understands and recognizes the demands that are on the current athletes — but he also hopes they realize how far the program has progressed.
“It’s much more easy for us to be in positions to be great,” he explained. “We got so much support from the athletic department this year. They were bending over backwards to do things for us, and I know it hasn't always been that way. It was huge for us to have our matches on BYUtv and also to see the Smith Fieldhouse as full as it was. The fans were phenomenal, which is also marvelous for us.”
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.