Victor Batista and the Cougars will play two matches against the Matadors of Cal State Northridge. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
PROVO -- Looking to improve their position in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the No. 4 BYU Cougars will play two matches against league foe Cal State Northridge, ranked No. 8, Friday and Saturday (April 1 and 2) in the Matadome.
The Cougars (15-8 overall, 10-6 MPSF) are fifth in the MPSF standings while Hawai'i and UC Santa Barbara are tied for third at 11-5 in league play. Those two teams will play two matches in Honolulu this weekend. A combination of two BYU wins and a split between Hawai'i and UCSB would create a three-way tie for third.
A fourth-place finish would guarantee the Cougars a home match in the first round of the MPSF tournament but would likely result in a second round match on the road against the top seed. Coach Tom Peterson said the team's goal is to finish third, giving BYU the chance to play the top seed in the tournament final.
For the second-consecutive weekend, the Cougars will face a team riding a five-match winning streak. Cal State is coming off back-to-back road wins over IPFW, two of the Matadors strongest offensive showings of the season. In those matches, Cal State hit .418 and .364. The Matadors' record is 14-10 overall and 7-9 in the MPSF.
"They've got good middles," Peterson said. "Everybody says how good they are at their place. They've defeated a lot of good teams there."
Cal State is a tough team to play at home where the Matadors are 7-3. Their only home losses have come at the hands of Long Beach State, UCLA and Stanford.
Cal State features a trio of dangerous middles, Brian Waite, James Lischer and Matt Bellante. Waite is second on the team in kills and blocks per game at 3.11 and 1.17. Lischer is not far behind at 2.70 kills and 0.93 blocks and leads the team in hitting percentage at .509. Bellante is second in hitting percentage at .445 and blocking average, 1.07.
Nils Nielson is the top kill producer for the Matadors, averaging 3.53 kills per game while adding 1.54 digs. Pedraza Sebastian's 2.25 digs per game lead the team. The quarterback of the offense is setter Jeff Conover, who averages 12.62 assists and has set the team to a .309 hitting percentage.
One of the keys to the team's success has been the service game. Cal State averages 1.43 per game with Cary Hanson leading with a 0.41 average. Waite and Neilson each average 0.28 per game.
The Cougars own a 17-13 advantage over the Matadors and have dominated the series since 1997. CS Northridge won the first seven matches of the series before BYU earned its first win February 22, 1993. From 1997 to 2003, the Cougars won 12 consecutive over the Matadors. The teams have split the last four meetings. BYU owns a slight edge in Northridge, leading 7-6.
The Cougars are coming off a weekend split with the Long Beach State 49ers in the Smith Fieldhouse. BYU struggled to find consistency and played tentatively in Friday night's 3-0 loss. On Saturday, the Cougars showed much more poise, winning a close five-game match to earn the split. BYU lost the first game but won two of the next three to tie the match at 2-2. In the fifth, the teams played to a 10-10 tie before the Cougars caught fire, scoring the last five to win the match.
Ivan Perez has been BYU's go-to-guy in the month of March, averaging 5.04 kills per game while hitting .416 (141-40-243). He has also averaged 1.46 digs, 0.71 blocks and 0.32 aces during the stretch. Against Long Beach, Perez registered 47 kills in two matches, the highest two-day total of his career. The 25 kills he tallied in Saturday's 3-2 win were a career high. For the season, Perez is averaging 3.69 kills and hitting .335.
Not only has Perez increased his hitting efficiency during March, the team's blocking has improved as well. Michael Burke is averaging 1.57 per game while Rob Neilson is at 1.11 and Victor Batista is at 1.04. As a team, the Cougars are averaging 3.23 blocks during March compared to 2.89 on the season.
After this weekend's matches with Cal State Northridge, BYU will be back home for the final home matches of the regular season. The Cougars will host the UC San Diego Tritons for a pair of matches Friday and Saturday, April 8 and 9 at 7 p.m.