(Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
The BYU men's volleyball team enters its third season under Tom Peterson on top of the collegiate volleyball world. The Cougars claimed the 2004 National Championship, BYU's third in six years, by defeating Long Beach State in five games. The team showed great composure in the championship match, coming back from a 10-6 deficit and two Long Beach match points in the final game to claim the match.
Even with the loss of three All-Americans in setter Carlos Moreno, outside hitter Fernando Pessoa, and opposite-side hitter Joe Hillman, and two other starters, the Cougars have reloaded and are ready to make their third straight trip to the NCAA Final Four. In 2003, the Cougars finished second in the nation after losing to Lewis in the championship match. The Cougars return second team All-American Victor Batista and highly regarded middle blocker Michael Burke. Burke and Batista had the highest hitting percentages and posted the highest blocking averages on the team in 2004. With the return of two stars and a great group of young talent to replace the departed seniors, the Cougars should be able to continue their championship tradition in 2005.
The following is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2005 BYU Cougars:
Despite the loss of two starters, BYU will be strong at the outside hitter position. Victor Batista, who earned All-America honors at the middle blocker position in 2004, will be joined by a large group of players that are brimming with potential, including redshirt freshman Ivan Perez, junior Taylor Evans, senior Casey Patterson, and junior Matt Heyes. Batista led the team in blocks per game at 1.24 and total blocks with 129. He hit a career-high 18 kills on three different occasions and a recorded a career high of nine total blocks twice. He was also one of the Cougars' top service threats, finishing second on the team with 19 aces.
Evans and Patterson are the only others besides Batista who have any game experience. Patterson mostly saw action at setter in 2002 and 2003 and Evans saw limited playing time on the outside in 2004. Perez, who practiced with the team everyday last season, brings athleticism and power to the outside. While his game experience is limited, he will be expected to contribute throughout the season.
The opposite-side hitter position will be very deep for the Cougars and one of their strengths. Peterson attributes the depth to the fact that many of the players are very versatile and can play more than one position. Evans is one of many players competing for the starting position at opposite-side hitter. He hit for a career high 15 kills last season against George Mason. Patterson returns to BYU after sitting out the 2004 season. He can also play setter and provide power on the outside. While a good setter, Peterson feels Patterson can be a bigger contributor as a hitter. Junior Danillo Lampariello from Sao Paulo, Brazil, may also see time on the opposite-side. Though he did not see action in 2004, he has been impressive in practice. Victor Batista, a 2004 Second-team All-American, can also hit opposite.
The middle blocker position will be thin in numbers but having a healthy Michael Burke will make the middle strong for BYU. Burke, who missed the first 12 matches of 2004 due to injury, starts the 2005 season as one of the best middle blockers in the nation. Despite joining the team in midseason, Burke was a major contributor for BYU, leading the Cougars with a .506 hitting percentage and finishing second on the team in blocks per game at 1.17. He also earned Third-team All-MPSF honors. On April 15 against USC, Burke hit for a career high .923 hitting percentage, finishing with 12 kills on 13 attempts. Redshirt freshman Russell Holmes and sophomore Bryan Stewart, a transfer student from Utah Valley State College, will join Burke in the middle. Both players have plenty of potential but are limited as far as experience is concerned. Peterson said that the development of Homes and Stewart will be a big factor for the middle blocker position and the success of the team.
Junior Rob Neilson will step into the starting role vacated by All-American Carlos Moreno, who completed his athletic eligibility in 2004. Despite the big shoes to fill left by the AVCA National Player of the year, Peterson is more than confident that Neilson is capable of directing the team. Neilson was the backup in 2004 and learned a great deal from Moreno. In preseason action during the fall of 2004, Neilson looked confident and capable of helping preserve BYU's tradition of excellence. The versatile Casey Patterson will provide depth at the position. Peterson will also rely on freshman Brian Congelliere and sophomore-transfer Allan Mount from UCLA.
Junior Brian Rowley, who saw limited playing time last season, will step in as the new libero. Despite limited playing time, he practiced everyday against the National Champions and performed very well. Joining Rowley will be senior Rob Congelliere. Congelliere has been a valuable player for the Cougars in practice and should have the opportunity to see playing time this season. Matt Heyes may also see action as a libero.
Despite the loss of several key contributors, the Cougars will again be a very deep squad. The coaching staff will have the option of choosing from several athletes who can play more than one position to field a competitive team every match. The team has worked with several lineups during the preseason and the coaches are still deciding what will work best. The experience and leadership of Batista, Burke, and Neilson will prove very beneficial as many young players are expected to be a big part of the rotation. With Burke and Batista having started in 2004 and all three being key contributors in the National Championship run, they will be a steadying influence for Cougars.
"This team has a lot of potential," Peterson said. "It will depend a lot on ball control, especially passing. If we can get some of the same magic, the same concept of team, and work hard as a team, not just as individuals, we could go a long way."