No. 3 ranked BYU men’s volleyball hasn’t started strongly in recent games. How they’ve adjusted afterwards, however, has led to five straight wins, including Friday night’s 3-1 (28-30, 25-17, 25-16, 25-22) home victory over UC Santa Barbara.
After dropping the first set, the Cougars clamped down defensively while limiting the unforced errors that initially set them back. BYU finished with 38 total blocks to UCSB’s 16, led by Russ Lavaja’s 11. The junior middle blocker helped seal the fourth set, scoring on a high one-handed return and following with two blocks on the next two possessions to give BYU a 24-20 lead.
“Coach just worked with us the whole time after the break [following the second set],” Lavaja said. “We had a game plan and we just reinforced it a little bit. We made a few small changes and it worked.”
Indeed it did, to the point that BYU held UCSB to under a 10 percent kill rate in each of the last three sets after completing 22.6 percent in the first. The Cougar defense was particularly stifling in the third set, with 12 of their 25 points coming from blocked kill attempts.
But while BYU came away with the win, they did not come away satisfied after losing the first set for the third straight game and giving up a six-point lead in the fourth set before rallying for the win. The offense sputtered in those sets, with Robb Stowell countering his game-high 17 kills with nine errors. A service ace from Oliver Deutschman put the Gauchos up 18-17, but two surprise kills from setter Joe Kauliakamoa evened the score before BYU would retake the lead for good.
Lavaja admitted the team has been susceptible to slow starts and setbacks, but expressed confidence in labeling the trend one that can be remedied.
“It’s just a lull a little bit in the sets, but it’s nothing we can’t fix,” Lavaja said. “That’s our main focus right now, it’s a small adjustment to keep the light switch on between the matches and we’ll be good to go.”
The Cougars and Gauchos complete their two-game series today at Smith Fieldhouse at 7:00p.m.
Game Notes: Friday night’s win marked the seventh consecutive game BYU played without the services of Taylor Sander. The sophomore outside hitter led the team in kills per set (4.9) before suffering a hand injury that is expected to keep him out of action for another 1-3 weeks.
Lavaja said that while his presence is missed, the team’s expectations are to succeed with or without him.
“It’s a small change,” Lavaja said. “It’s nice to have him around, but we should be able to play fine whether he’s there or not. We want to be great like that that way when he gets back, it’s just a plus for us.”
Matt Petersen can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @TheMattPetersen.