After an impressive stretch where the BYU men’s volleyball team won three national championships in six years (1999, 2001, 2004) and had a loss to Lewis in the 2003 title match later vacated, the Cougars have had to watch as other teams hoisted the title trophy in the ensuing eight seasons.
BYU hopes to end that drought Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles when the Cougars meet defending national champion UC-Irvine in the NCAA championship (7 p.m. MDT, ESPNU).
It’s hard to explain the dry spell.
BYU has definitely had talent as 16 players have been recognized as All-Americans. The Cougars have had success, always winning at least 17 games. They’ve ended the season ranked in the Top 5 in five of those years.
But none of those teams ever won the Mountain-Pacific Sports Federation title or reached the Final Four. Every year BYU just wasn’t quite good enough.
But 2013 has been different.
“So many guys have been able to step up in big moments,” said Cougar junior All-American outside hitter Taylor Sander. “Having all those guys competing like that at this level at this point in the season is something that has made a huge difference. Everyone is playing really well right now and I think that maybe is something we lacked the past couple of years. We’ve felt a little pressure and we weren’t able to rise above that.”
That mental toughness, the ability to take an opponent’s best shot and then respond with a counterpunch, has allowed this BYU team to move beyond the limits of the recent past.
The Cougars went 6-3 in matches that lasted the full five sets, including dramatic victories over Hawaii and UCLA in the MPSF tournament and a 3-2 road win over UC-Irvine on March 1.
“Last year we would find ways to not win those matches while this year just a few points went our way,” said BYU head coach Chris McGown. “We maintained our calm and composure. I think going through it last year and again this year, they found ways to get it done.”
McGown has been preaching team unity and composure ever since he got the job before the 2012 season. Every time he talks about the 2013 squad, he says they just have to play how they know how to play and be positive with each other.
It’s a philosophy the players appear to have bought into with visible results.
“They stayed together and that was a theme for us all season long,” McGown said. “We said we are doing this as a team. If you make a mistake, don't wander off and get frustrated. Look to your teammates. They are going to pick you up and that's how we are going to play.”
McGown himself rarely gets too animated on the sideline. Even when things aren’t going how his Cougars would want, he appears confident and in control.
Part of that is knowing the talent he has on the court. He said he knew coming into the year that this Cougar squad could be an elite-level squad.
“You have a vision of what the team will be and how guys will develop along the way,” he explained. “We knew they would be good. We knew they would be a year older and a year more mature. We were just that close last year. We were that close this year, but just on the right side of it.”
Now BYU sits just one match away from the ultimate goal — the national title — and only a talented UC-Irvine team stands in the way.
The Anteaters have won three titles in their own six year period (2007, 2009, 2012) and look to become the first team since UCLA in 1995-96 to win back-to-back titles.
BYU has dominated the overall series against UC-Irvine (41-12) and won both matches this season. This one, however, will be the toughest.
McGown said UC-Irvine is very good and he expects this to be a phenomenal matchup.
For the Cougars, winning would mean finally reaching that elusive goal of being the top team in the country.
“I thought it felt good to win the MPSF championship, so I don’t know what it would feel like to win the national title,” Sander said. “It’s all of our dreams to do that. I’m not trying to think too far ahead but it would probably be one of the best moments of my life.”
BYU sophomore libero Jaylen Reyes added: “I can’t think of anything better. Maybe the only thing better would be making the Olympic team and winning a gold medal. It would mean the world to me.”
If the Cougars win, players like Sander, Reyes, Ben Patch, Russ Lavaja, Josue Rivera, Ryan Boyce, Devin Young and the entire team would put their names on the same pedestal as some of the great BYU players of all time, guys like Ryan Millar, Hector Lebron and Ossie Antonetti.
McGown would also join his father Carl McGown, who coached the Cougars to the titles in 1999 and 2001, as coaches of national champions. They would become the first father-son combination to coach the same school to an NCAA championship in the same sport.
It all comes down to what happens Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles when BYU plays UC-Irvine. The match is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. MDT and can be seen on ESPNU.
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.