2011 BYU men's volleyball team (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
Finishing the 2010 season with a No. 2 final national ranking and a 22-9 record, the BYU men's volleyball team returns one All-American, two All-MPSF selections and is ready for another successful campaign in 2011.
Stepping in as the interim head coach, Rob Neilson takes the reins of the team after serving as the assistant coach for the past three seasons.
“We have a very competitive team this year and we are going to have the opportunity to do very well,” Neilson said. “We will be an exciting team for our fans to watch and we will represent BYU well. Our goal is to develop the belief, habits and skills that allow us to compete for and win a national championship.”
The Cougars had a successful preseason, with wins over Saskatchewan, Calgary, Lewis, UC San Diego, Cal Baptist, Grand Canyon University and Long Beach State; having the opportunity to experiment with a lot of different lineups. The team's only loss in the preseason came from a very talented Canadian National team, Alberta.
After beginning the season at the Santa Barbara tournament, the Cougars will have a good challenge to start the regular season, traveling to Stanford, the defending national champions.
BYU is proud to have 10 matches in the Smith Fieldhouse for the 2011 season, each one to be broadcast on BYUtv.
“It's a huge plus for us to play at home,” Neilson said. “We have a great home-court advantage in the Fieldhouse with the best fans in the nation and are very comfortable here.”
The first match to be played at home will be against UC Irvine who finished strong last season. UCLA, San Diego, Hawaii and Long Beach also always have very competitive programs and the team is excited to play them in Provo.
Playing in the MPSF where 11 of the 12 teams finished last year ranked in the top 15, there are no easy matches. Marquee road matches for the Cougars include USC in the beginning of March and Pepperdine to finish off the regular season in early April.
Battling for the two starting outside hitter positions will be seniors Alex DaPron, Kevin Sagers and true freshman Taylor Sander, who look to replace first-team All-American Andrew Stewart.
DaPron started 13 matches for BYU in 2009 after transferring from UC Irvine but sat out with an injury in 2010. Kevin Sagers played in 98-of-119 sets in the 2010 season, including seven-straight starts. He also led the team in kills in two matches last season. Sander has played in the national spotlight on the junior level for many years and will bring a lot of excitement to the Cougar squad.
“Taylor is going to play a big role for us this year,” Neilson said. “Our fans are going to learn very quickly that he is one of the most exciting players to watch since [Hall of Famer] Ossie Antonetti. He's phenomenally athletic and has played at a high level internationally - we expect him to play well at the collegiate level as well.”
In addition to these three, freshman Josue Rivera from Puerto Rico and senior Jeff Robinson will also vie for the outside hitter position.
Returning for his junior season, Robb Stowell, will lead the Cougars on the rightside after being named to the All-MPSF team and National Player of the Week once during the 2010 season. Stowell also had the second-most kills for the Cougars during last season with 414.
Sophomore community college transfers Steve Rindfleisch and Shane Tye will provide more depth to the Cougar squad after carrying the load at their respective colleges.
“Robb did an outstanding job for us last year at opposite and we expect him to win that spot and play great for us again,” Neilson said. “Steve and Shane will challenge him for playing time this year, which will push Robb to elevate his game.”
After earning a second-team All-America citation last season, junior Futi Tavana is back and ready to do some more damage on the Cougar block. Tavana broke the all-time record for blocks in a single match with 15, also helping the team record a new all-time record of 24.5 team blocks the same night.
“Futi is a leader, a phenomenal athlete, and he controls the net for us offensively and defensively,” Neilson said. “When Futi is playing great, he demands so much attention that it allows the rest of the team to play at a high level as well. He will be important to our success this year.”
With All-MPSF junior Rusty Lavaja recovering from shoulder surgery in August, the Cougars will look to senior Otavio Souza, junior Quentin Smith and sophomore Erik Mayer to compete for playing time at middle blocker. Souza played in 40 sets and tallied 68 kills in 2010, and led the team in hitting efficiency.
After losing both the starting setters Reed Chilton and Yamil Perez to graduation, sophomore Ryan Boyce and junior Joe Kauliakamoa will be asked to fill big shoes. Both came in as serving substitutes during the 2010 season, Kauliakamoa playing in 30 sets while Boyce played in five.
“Our setters are both very talented,” Neilson said. “Joe does not have a lot of experience setting on our team, but has had a lot of international experience setting for both the youth and junior national teams. Ryan is ultra competitive and an exceptional setter. He brings a lot of energy to the court, so there is an intense competition between those two. Both are doing an excellent job learning and progressing. The offense has played very well while each setter has seen playing time.”
While there are some new faces to receive serve, there is senior leadership anchoring the back row. Seniors BJ Hiapo and Jeff Robinson will compete at libero, while seniors DaPron and Sagers will compete as outside hitters, which also serve as primary passers.
“Both BJ and Jeff can play at a high level and do a nice job for us. Its great to have both of them competing in our gym,” said Neilson.
Cory Jones is a newcomer who will also play at the libero position and will contribute to the team this year in training.
“Our goals for the season are the same as every year - develop into a team that can win championships,” Neilson said. “Obviously we're focused now on the process and learning what it takes to become a champion, but I am looking forward to watching this group progress and pay the price. We lost some key contributors from last year, but we have excellent athletes who will step in and do a great job. I'm excited for what's in store. Our team works hard, enjoys playing together, and we will compete with passion.”