BYU senior All-American outside hitter Taylor Sander may be the most powerful hitter in college men's volleyball today.
Whether evidenced by his booming serves, his thunderous swings at the net or his killer back-line attacks, it's clear Sander knows how to hammer the ball down.
But in Thursday night's sweep of UC Santa Barbara that sent the Cougars to today's Mountain-Pacific Sports Federation final against Stanford (7 p.m., BYUtv), Sander also demonstrated that he is more than just raw power.
"He's got a variety of shots," BYU head coach Chris McGown said. "That's what makes him an effective hitter. Obviously he has a great arm and can hit the ball with a lot of velocity. He can fire rockets over there, but at the same time, that gets people dug in. They are expecting this fastball and all of a sudden you throw something really off-speed. When you vary it, it keeps the defense a little bit out of rhythm."
Sander showed off his versatility against the Gauchos by getting kills with a number of different off-speed shots:
- On a key play midway through the second set, Sander came in for a swing, only to have the set end up too close to the net. Instead of hitting it into the block, he deftly poked it off the defender who was on his way down and let the guy's momentum carry the ball to the ground for the point.
- Another time the senior came in so high that he had time to pick the hole. Instead of firing into the block, he placed the ball right into the empty back corner for an easy kill.
- Perhaps the most deft of his kills came when UCSB got three guys up to block him, only to have him let the ball roll off his arm crosscourt for a perfect cut shot that gave no Gaucho defender time to cover as it dropped just a couple of feet off the net.
"That sharp cutter that he hit away isn't one you see a lot in college volleyball," McGown said. "It's more used in beach volleyball. But he's worked hard on it and the others. It's a conscious part of his game."
Sander explained that part of the process of determining which shot to use is how the ball comes in.
"You are going to see a bunch of different sets and not all of them are going to be perfect," Sander said. "You have to be smart and make principled swings. You want to hit to open spots where maybe it will go off the block or we can cover it. Taking principled swings and trusting yourself are the main points there."
McGown explained that the goal in some situations isn't necessarily to go for the home run, but more to just not hurt your team's chances to get the point.
"You look to swing in areas where you are not going to get hurt, where you are not going to get stuffed and you are not taking risky shots in narrow corridors down lines," McGown said.
The Cougars will need Sander and the other hitters to continue making those good decisions when they take on Stanford with the MPSF title and an automatic berth to the upcoming NCAA tournament on the line.
It's not going to be easy, as the Cardinal proved by dominating Pepperdine in their semifinal.
"They looked really, really impressive," McGown said. "Stanford passed great. When they pass well, they are a tough team. They have weapons all over. I thought they were great in the middle of the court. They are an all-around great team."
But BYU is at home, where it has won 25 straight matches, and that means the Cougars have some advantages.
"We're playing well at home," Sander said. "We always play well at home and having that crowd behind us is huge. Stanford is a tough team and we're looking forward to playing well against them."
BYU and the Cardinal will take the court at 7 p.m. tonight at the Smith Fieldhouse with the title on the line. The game will be broadcast on BYUtv.