Ivan Perez and the Cougars have high expectations going into the 2006 season. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
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2006 Season Preview
Expectations are high going into the 2006 BYU men's volleyball season as six starters are back from a team that finished third in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation at 15-7 and 20-10 overall. Going into the 2005 campaign, the Cougars had several talented players, but little experience. With a year of seasoning and a crop of talented newcomers added to the mix, BYU will be looking to return to the top of the MPSF.
"We'll be a competitive team," BYU coach Tom Peterson said. "We may not be the biggest team, but if we keep working hard we should contend for the conference title."
Returning starters include All-Americans Ivan Perez and Victor Batista. Perez was named a second-team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association while Asics/Volleyball Magazine named him and Batista to its second team. Rob Neilson joined Perez and Batista as All-MPSF performers. Batista was an AVCA second-team All-American in 2004 as well. Brian Rowley and Taylor Evans are also returning starters, along with Russell Holmes who started a handful of matches last season. Following is a position-by-position look at the Cougars:
Ivan Perez, a 6-4 sophomore, returns to man a position on the outside and is one of BYU's most talented and exciting players. After earning a starting spot early in the 2005 season, Perez came on strong in the second half to finish as the team leader in kills per game at 3.78 while hitting .331, the best percentage by a freshman outside hitter in school history. Along with his hitting, Perez was a threat with the serve, recording 29 aces in 2005. He demonstrated his vast potential during five-match stretch in March when he averaged 5.04 kills, 1.46 digs, 0.71 blocks and 0.32 aces per game while hitting a blistering .416 (141-40-243). Perez was named player of the week for his play against Hawai`i (March 18, 19) when he had 32 kills and hit .418 (32-9-55) while helping the Cougars register back-to-back sweeps against the Warriors. He had perhaps the best match of his career in a five-game win over Long Beach State when he recorded a career-high 25 kills, hit .526 (25-5-38) and had three aces, five digs and two blocks.
Senior Taylor Evans, who has one of the best vertical leaps in the country, is a likely candidate to fill the other spot on the outside after starting most of the season there in 2005. He played several matches at opposite early in the season, but became the regular starter on the outside when senior Victor Batista switched from the outside to the middle. He finished the season averaging 2.31 kills per game and was third on the team with 33 aces. Batista started the first month-and-a-half on the outside and had several solid matches, including a win over UC Santa Barbara when he had a career-high 23 kills and hit .656 (23-2-32). He also had 21 kills against Hawai`i and 20 versus Penn State. On Feb. 25 against UC Irvine he moved to the middle, his position in 2004, where he played the rest of the season with a few exceptions. Rodrigo Gomes, a freshman from Brazil, has the potential to be a major contributor for the Cougars. He has an excellent jumping ability and a powerful swing. The key for Gomes and Evans will be their consistency. It is likely that both will be given a chance to prove themselves early in the season. Others who could potentially play on the outside include Josh Allen and Shawn Mauina.
The opposite hitter position is an area of uncertainty for Peterson and the Cougars. Casey Patterson, who played the majority of the games at that position, completed his eligibility. Patterson's successor will likely be junior Bryan Stewart or junior Jonathan Charette. Stewart saw time off the bench as a middle in 2004 and played three games in BYU's final match of the season as an opposite, recording a career-high six kills and one dig. He is a solid leaper and has a good swing, but needs to improve his consistency. A native of Pearl City, Hawai`i, Charette played two years at Long Beach City College and earned first-team all-state honors as a freshman and was named the conference MVP as a sophomore when he led his team to the title of the Citi California Community Colleges Commission on Athletics Men's Volleyball Championships. Charette has great physical talents and his potential depends on his ability to make the transition from the junior college ranks to NCAA Division I, which includes becoming a consistent blocker.
Another solid option is Evans, who played several games as an opposite in 2005. Evans played opposite early in the season before playing exclusively as an outside starting in February. Others who could contribute on the opposite side include junior Scott Cox and junior Josh Brecheisen.
The middle blocker position is thin in numbers, but there are two experienced players returning in 6-foot-6 Batista and Russell Holmes, a 6-foot-8 sophomore. In his first season with BYU in 2004, Batista was a second-team All-American and a key contributor on the national championship team. In 2005, he started the season as an outside hitter but switched back to the middle a month into the season. He finished the season second on the team with a 3.53 kills-per-game average and hit .316. He was also first on the team with 38 aces, fifth best in a single season at BYU, and was third on the squad with 97 blocks. Batista also gained valuable experience playing in the USA Open this past summer, where he was named the tournament MVP while leading his team to the title, and at the NORCECA Continental Championship in September with the Dominican Republic National Team.
Holmes returns after gaining valuable playing time as a freshman. He was a regular starter until Batista switched back to the middle, forcing him to come off the bench. Despite losing time on the court, he still managed to make significant contributions. Against Long Beach State, he had five kills, three digs and four blocks and played a big role in the fifth game that led to a 15-10 win to clinch the match. His improvement and physical stature could make him a dominating presence for the Cougars.
Other potential contributors on the roster include sophomore Trent Sorensen and Stewart. The 6-7 Sorensen saw action in one game last year and has shown great strides in practice since the beginning of last season. Stewart subbed in as a blocking specialist in 2005.
Despite entering last season with little setting experience at the NCAA level, Neilson established himself as one of the Cougars' leaders, quarterbacking the young offense while adding a solid defensive presence. Neilson averaged 13.22 assists and was second on the team in blocks with 98 while adding 137 digs, third best on the team. When BYU earned back-to-back sweeps over Hawai`i, he was named the AVCA National Player of the Week after registering a career-high in blocks the first night with seven, and then topping that the next night with nine. While 2004 was a learning process for Neilson, he now has the experience, talent and athletic ability to be one of the top setters in the MPSF.
Joining Neilson will be sophomore Brian Congelliere and freshman Chip Neff. Congelliere backed up Neilson last season and made great strides during the offseason. Neff is fresh off serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and will be playing back into shape to compete for time in 2007 when Neilson departs.
Brian Rowley returns for his senior season after starting every match during the 2005 season. Andy Pompei joins the Cougars out of St. Edward High School in Fairview Park, Ohio, and was one of the top prep liberos in the nation. He was an All-American and played on the junior national team. Rowley started every match in 2005 for BYU and played in 109 of 111 games while leading the team in digs per game at 1.89 and total digs with 206. He was also second in the MPSF with the least return errors per game and had double-digit digs seven times. He set his career high of 14 kills on two occassions, at USC and against Stanford.