Provo • Chris McGown has no trouble admitting it. The BYU men’s volleyball coach didn’t sleep right for a couple of months after the Cougars lost in three sets to UC Irvine in last spring’s national championship match.
“It was tough — real tough,” he said.
The third-year coach would seemingly have been downright distraught, then, when the 2014 season started on a sour note for the Cougars. They lost their opener 3-0 at No. 7 Loyola and followed that with another nonconference setback, a 3-1 loss at No. 10 Lewis.
But that wasn’t the case. McGown saw plenty of good signs during those losses in the Midwest.
And since then, the Cougars have shown that they might have the talent to return to the NCAA Tournament — slightly expanded this year to include six teams, instead of four. BYU has reeled off four straight wins in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) matches since that 0-2 start, including victories over then-No. 1 Long Beach State in Provo and defending national champion UC Irvine in Southern California.
“It is not abnormal for us to start a little sloppy, not playing our best volleyball,” McGown said. “We have done that every season since I have been coaching. And make no mistake, those teams we lost to are very good teams.
“I don’t think we were in any way freaking out,” McGown continued. “We got some early wakeup calls. For our guys, it was, ‘hey, look, we are not going to get out and cruise through matches this year.’ It didn’t crush our coaching staff’s spirits that we lost those. Certainly, it woke the guys up a little bit.”
The Cougars (4-0, 4-2) hope to continue their newfound momentum this weekend when they host No. 6 Stanford (0-2, 3-2) on Friday and Pacific (0-2, 1-4) on Saturday at the Smith Fieldhouse. First serve is at 7 p.m. for both matches, and both will be televised by BYUtv.
Stanford was ranked No. 1 last week, but dropped a pair of league matches. McGown said rankings in men’s volleyball at this point in the season are merely guesses, and nothing should be read into them.
“In our conference, everybody is good,” he said. “It is really hard to differentiate between one and 10 in our conference. Everybody is competitive.”
Last week proved, once again, that the Cougars have one of the best players in the league, if not the country.
Six-foot-4 senior Taylor Sander, a consensus All-American from Huntington Beach, Calif., was brilliant in the 3-2 come-from-behind win over UC Irvine and the 3-0 sweep of UC San Diego.
Against San Diego, Sander broke BYU’s all-time record for service aces in a match, with nine. It is tied for the third-most in MPSF history.
“It just kind of happened,” Sander said. “I just got on a good serving roll in San Diego. You never expect to get aces, so it is kind of a luck thing. But it is a cool achievement.”
Sander said the team’s goal this season is to win a national championship, despite losing three key players off last year’s second-place squad. Freshman sensation Ben Patch is on an LDS Church mission in Canada, while setter Ryan Boyce and middle blocker Russ Lavaja graduated.
Like McGown, Sander was not fazed by the season-opening losses.
“We learned a lot from those two losses, and we all realized we need to get better,” Sander said.
“We got back to practice and put a lot of work into getting better in the areas we needed to get better at. And our desire to win is really, really high right now.”
O Friday • BYU vs. Stanford, 7 p.m.
Saturday • BYU vs. Pacific, 7 p.m.
TV • Both matches will be televised live on BYUtv