(Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
A young BYU men’s volleyball team is eager to begin the 2009 season and gain the experience it needs to find success this year.
The Cougars, who finished the 2008 season with a 25-5 overall record, return two starters and no seniors. Combined with seven newcomers, the team is coming off a successful preseason—winning the BYU Tournament in December with wins over UC Irvine, Utah Valley University and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, and posting wins against USC and Hawaii earlier in November.
“In volleyball experience is everything,” said BYU head coach Shawn Patchell. “We have some inexperienced players but if we can get them some good competition all of a sudden we have experience. We’ve tried to expedite that process with training and good matches in the fall.”
In his third year as head coach, Patchell has continued BYU’s tradition of success on the court with an overall record of 48-11 over the past two seasons. A big part of that success he attributes to his players and their dedicated hard work to learn and become better—an attribute he hopes will continue with this year’s team.
Despite losing All-American outside hitter Ivan Perez, junior Andrew Stewart is back after finishing the 2008 season fourth on the team in kills. Joining Stewart are sophomores Jeff Robinson and Kevin Sagers. Add to the mix redshirt freshman Joe Kauliakamoa and transfer Alex Da Pron and the Cougars have a variety of talent and depth at that position.
“We have a crew of guys who are playing really well,” said Patchell. “Andrew has the most experience, but all those players will see playing time at different times. I feel really good about that position even though there was a big hole to fill.”
At opposite Patchell is confident in his two returning players, juniors Kent Tuttle and Mat Taylor. Taylor started three matches in 2008 and recorded a career-high nine digs against Stanford. Hampered by an injury throughout the season, Tuttle saw limited playing time but had a strong showing in the BYU Tournament this fall, earning All-Tournament honors.
The Cougars are without the talent of departed middle blockers Trent Sorensen and All-American Russell Holmes this year, but several newcomers have already proven they have tremendous potential in 2009. Redshirt freshman Futi Tavana moved to middle blocker from outside hitter early in the fall and hasn’t looked back since. He was named the Most Valuable Player of the BYU Tournament, leading the Cougars with five blocks against UCI in the final match.
“Futi is learning the position and doing a great job, “ said Patchell. “He still has a lot of learn, but he has a ton of potential. I’m ecstatic he’s found his niche.”
Patchell also expresses his confidence in newcomers Max Guillaume, Russell Lavaja and Otavio Souza, who all exhibited hard work throughout the fall season.
The Cougars return two talented setters in Reed Chilton and Yamil Perez. Chilton played in 24 of the team’s 30 matches last year, finishing second on the team with 599 assists. After being named 2007 MPSF Newcomer of the Year, Perez suffered two ankle sprains in 2008, limiting his playing time. Both players participated during the fall season, sharing the starting role.
“They’ve been battling it out,” said Patchell. “They’ll both play this year. Both those guys are very, very good and will add a lot to our team.”
BYU’s most experienced area remains the libero position, as Joel Silva returns for his junior season following an appearance at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games with the Venezuelan Senior National Team. In 2008 he set a new BYU rally-scoring record with 249 digs and was among the nation's top 20 in digs and digs-per-game.
“Joel has a lot of great experience above and beyond out conference,” said Patchell. “We’re leaning on him to be a stabilizing force and hope he’ll take that leadership role and run with it. That’s a nice position that we’re not going to mess with too much.”
Also playing libero for the Cougars is transfer BJ Hiapo who proved to be a worthy sub for Silva throughout the fall.
As a member of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the Cougars will face many of the nation’s leaders in men’s volleyball, but Patchell says this year the schedule is in their favor.
“Traditionally odd years are better for us,” he said. “We’ve won more national championships in odd years and there’s a reason for that—we get some powerhouses at home. The big one is UCLA at home, along with Long Beach State. It’s a nice schedule and if we can take care of our home matches we’ll be in a very nice spot.”
The Cougars’ home schedule also includes visits from UC Irvine, Hawaii and UC San Diego, while they hit the road to take on preseason favorite Pepperdine, as well as CSUN and USC. BYU know its success this season hinges on how it plays at home in the Smith Fieldhouse.
“It’s home,” said Patchell. “We get to practice where we play and have the best fans in the nation. They help us and inspire us and we like to play well for them. It’s a great place to play volleyball and a great recruiting tool as well.”
The Smith Fieldhouse will also serve as host to the 2009 NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championships on May 7-9. While there is a lot of volleyball to play between now and then, the Cougars are using that as motivation to play hard.
“We’d sure love to be there,” said Patchell. “The Final Four being on our home court, we like to call it “eustress”. It’s a good stress to have and we want to be there. With this group I’m not going to put any ceiling on them, inexperienced as we are. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. The hottest team in the end will win. We hope to be that team.”