(Photo by Isabella Torgenson/BYU Photo)
An ordinary man with an extraordinary goal, BYU’s volleyball extraordinaire Taylor Sander constantly exceeds expectations and proves he’s skilled beyond his years as he races to reach his Olympic dream.
One of the junior’s favorite players to watch growing up was outside hitter Reid Priddy, a member of three Olympic volleyball teams. Priddy brightened the life of Sander’s 12-year-old self when he autographed a ball for him. Last summer, Sander trained with the U.S. World League team, where he and Priddy shared the same court.
The 20-year-old Sander from Huntington Beach, Calif., was the youngest member of the team that included seven Olympic gold medalists and the MVP of the 2008 Olympic Games, Clay Stanley. The 2012 Olympic team was chosen from that roster, where Sander was the only non-professional.
“To watch all his dreams come true, to see them unfold, it is so profound,” Kera Sander, Taylor’s mother, said. “He is way above any expectation we could have ever had for him.”
After helping lead the 21U Men’s Junior National Team to a gold medal at NORCECA in 2010, the 6-foot-4 hitter rejoined Team USA last summer for another glimpse at the Olympic life. Sander led the U.S. Men’s National Team to a gold medal at the Pan American Cup in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Sander captivated those in attendance, earning himself tournament MVP.
“Playing with the Pan-Am team this summer, winning a gold medal and being named the MVP has to be my proudest moment,” Sander said. “I was one of the youngest kids, I just wanted to add to the team and contribute. I didn’t go thinking I could ever win the MVP award. The guys I was playing with are professionals. It was a shock, but definitely really exciting.”
Sander was no stranger to volleyball when he first stepped onto the court. Sander grew up on the sidelines watching his mother play from the comfort of a swing as a four-month-old. He then moved to a playpen and when he learned to walk, he knew he wasn’t allowed to cross the blue lines.
Taylor’s sister Britney took after their mother’s love first, which peaked Taylor’s interest in the sport. Because of his sister’s talent, a local club asked Taylor to try out at the age of nine.
Despite his early start in the sport, it wasn’t until he was 16-years-old that the 2011 MPSF Freshman of the Year first started to realize he had a special talent.
“I was never a hitter, I was just a setter so I never really stood out,” Sander said. “I switched to hitter when I was 16 and I started hearing college coaches were interested in me. It made me realize I was better than I thought.”
While he grew up a BYU fan, several top colleges noted Sander’s top-tier talent, including 2012 National Champion UC Irvine, USC and Long Beach State. With the top volleyball programs in the country recruiting him, Sander was pulled in different directions when it came time to pick where to play.
The Saturday before he had to make his college decision, former men’s volleyball coach Shawn Patchell called Sander and told him the coaches and team were going to fast for him to know where to go and asked if he would, too.
“Taylor came home from school Monday and asked for the phone and said, ‘I’m making my call… I’m going to BYU,’” Kera Sander said, holding back tears.
“When I was getting recruited, I got to go visit a lot of schools and there were some things that took my attention away from BYU,” Sander said. “But at the end of the day and in the back of my mind, I always knew I belonged at BYU.”
The Cougars’ strong fan-base, ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2012, was a big draw for Sander, who has played in front of fans worldwide.
“The crowd here is something I always talk about,” Sander said. “You don’t play in front of any crowd like that anywhere else in America.”
When comparing his experiences on the national team to the BYU team, the biggest impression the national team has left on Sander is its unparalleled level of play and notes they never mess up. But back home on the BYU courts, camaraderie is what Sander treasures most.
“When you play at BYU, it involves more friendships and bonding,” Sander said. “Playing for your school is an amazing experience and feeling.”
Being a part of a team is something Sander enjoys most about the sport. Because of the springs in his feet, he often finds himself in the spotlight but always shrugs off the praise and is the first to highlight the ability of his teammates.
After being named an AVCA All-American as a sophomore, Sander credited his team for the award.
“It was nice to get that award, but you can’t get there without your team,” Sander said. “It’s a team thing, if our team didn’t do well, I wouldn’t have gotten that award. Volleyball is more about the team than any one individual.”
The recognition was still special for Sander, who looked up to past recipients as role models. This year, Sander aspires to be a mentor to younger players on the team. Pulling from valuable lessons from his experience playing on the national team, Sander looks to inspire and lead the Cougars.
“I’ve played now with some of the best players in the world,” Sander said. “I’ve seen how they interact on the court and in the training room and team meetings. I’ve seen the leadership at that level and that’s something I’m going to try to bring to BYU. I want to be a mentor to the younger players.”
The quiet and reserved power-hitter was not always comfortable with a leadership role, but men’s volleyball coach Chris McGown said he has progressed in terms of maturity.
“Even though he doesn’t necessarily want to be that guy everyone looks to, it inherently comes when you’re as good of a player as he is,” McGown said. “He’s beginning to understand the importance of it.”
Already one of the top players in the country, Sander continues to progress and improve not only as a leader, but also as a player.
“I think he’s gotten a lot better in some areas, especially hitting, because of his ability to quickly make changes to his game,” McGown said. “He’s getting better and better as a player, not just because of his physicality, which is apparent, but because of his mental approach.”
Despite playing with Olympic athletes, being named an MVP on an international stage and joining the ranks of All-Americans as a sophomore, Sander’s parents remind him he’s just like everybody else.
“He receives so many accolades from family, friends, grandparents – our responsibility is to keep him grounded,” Kera Sander said. “He takes out the trash and makes his bed. There’s a balance between telling him he’s the best and keeping him grounded.”
Sander enjoys another sport many people wouldn’t guess because of his laid-back and easy-going personality– anything extreme.
“I love wakeboarding, dirt biking, all of it,” Sander said. “My dad and I are kind of fearless. I’m more careful now, though, because I’m so serious in volleyball.”
Sander’s seriousness when it comes to volleyball is something his BYU teammates are grateful for, including that he’s on their side of the net.
“Taylor is a once-in-a-generation type of player,” said teammate and close friend Jaylen Reyes. “Players as gifted and talented as him don’t come around much.”
McGown said team members find themselves smiling and shaking their heads, often muttering, ‘Did that just happen?’ when watching Sander perform.
After leading the Cougars last season with 435 kills, Sander prepares to lead the 2012 BYU squad to a dominant year in the MPSF before stepping close to his dream of representing the United States at the highest stage and winning an Olympic gold.
At only 20-years-old, Sander has achieved more than most volleyball players ever will and is poised to have another year that makes us, just like his teammates, step back, shake our heads and smile.