There were a few bumps along the way, a couple of minor obstacles here or there to overcome. But for the most part, this has been a "magical" season for the BYU men’s volleyball team, in the words of superstar outside hitter Taylor Sander.
But it is not quite over, the dream of winning the program’s first national championship since 2004, and fourth overall, not fully realized.
Having reached the NCAA Final Four for the fifth time since 1999, the No. 1-ranked and top-seeded Cougars (25-4) must win two more matches to complete the script that second-year coach Chris McGown laid out for them at the beginning of the season.
BYU takes on fourth-seeded Penn State (23-7) at Pauley Pavilion on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on Thursday night at 9 p.m. MT in a national semifinal, after No. 2 UC Irvine and No. 3 Loyola-Chicago battle at 7 p.m. The winners meet Saturday for the national championship.
"We feel really good about ourselves going into this weekend," said Sander, the MPSF Player of the Year and a first-team AVCA All-American. "We have a lot of confidence. If we play our game, the way we can play, the way we have been prepared to play, we can beat any team in the country."
In other words, the Cougars are the team that McGown said they were, and could become, when he listed three attainable goals back in December: win the MPSF regular-season championship, win the MPSF conference tournament, and win the national championship.
"You have a vision of what the team will be, and how guys will develop along the way, and that has pretty much played out like we wanted," McGown said, noting that freshman Michael Hatch and junior Devin Young have been pleasant surprises, Freshman of the Year Ben Patch has been a major addition and Sander, seniors Russ Lavaja and Ryan Boyce and sophomore Josue Rivera improved after steady 2012 seasons when they were very good, but often on the wrong side of razor-close matches.
"We knew we would be good. We knew we would be a year older, a year more mature, and just a little bit better," McGown continued. "We were just that close last year, and we were just this close this year, just on the right side of [close matches]."
Ranked second in the country and picked to finish second in the MPSF in preseason polls, the Cougars rose to the No. 1 ranking in late January after a big win over then-No. 1 UC Irvine.
A five-set loss at No. 5 Pepperdine in mid-February cost them their top spot in the rankings, but they regained it a few weeks later by beating the No. 1 Anteaters in Irvine, rallying from a two-set deficit with a pair of 25-23 wins before taking the fifth set, 15-11.
Despite getting drubbed 3-0 at UCLA on April 6, the only time all season they looked overmatched, the Cougars held the No. 1 ranking the final seven weeks of the regular season and won the regular-season title by an unprecedented three matches.
"Exhilarating," is how the phenomenal freshman, Patch, who will depart on a two-year LDS Church mission this summer, described the season. "I mean, we have had some ups and downs, but for the most part, it has been a lot of ups. We have been a constant, steady team the whole time. So it has been exhilarating, and fun."
But it would get even more exciting for the Cougars and their fans in the MPSF Tournament, especially in a semifinal match at Smith Fieldhouse a week ago when they rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat UCLA 3-2 and douse the Bruins’ hopes of making the Final Four and playing at home this week.
Former BYU coach Carl McGown (1989-2002), Chris’ father, who is a volunteer assistant coach, told the players in the locker room that the win over UCLA was one of the greatest wins in school history.
"We took some confidence from matches that we played like that during the season," Chris McGown said. "For sure we are a confident team, and believe [after the conference tournament win] even more in our ability to play good volleyball."
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