Defending Champs Open at Honolulu

Rob Neilson and Michael Burke and the rest of the BYU men's volleyball team travel to Hawai'i to open the 2005 season in the Outrigger tournament. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)

HONOLULU -- The defending NCAA National Champion BYU Cougar men's volleyball team will kick off the 2005 season with three matches at the Outrigger Tournament this week in Honolulu. BYU will square off against east coast and Midwest powers Penn State and Lewis University, and the University of Hawai'i, the tournament host.

"We're very excited to start the season," coach Tom Peterson said. "We've never played in the Outrigger Tournament before. It is a great opportunity to play in such a prestigious tournament."

The Cougars will be introducing a new lineup in Hawai'i after losing five starters from the 2004 National Championship team. Senior middle blocker Michael Burke and junior outside hitter Victor Batista are the two returning starters.

Burke hit for a team high .506 hitting percentage while finishing second in blocks at 1.17 per game. Batista led the team with 1.24 blocks per game and was second on the team with a .458 hitting percentage.

Several players will look to crack the lineup to help BYU maintain its winning tradition. The frontrunners include junior setter Rob Neilson, junior libero Brian Rowley, freshman outside hitter Ivan Perez, freshman middle blocker Russell Holmes, and junior opposite hitter Taylor Evans. Neilson and Evans are the only two with significant playing time.

"It will be interesting to see how they perform," Peterson said. "We are inexperienced but at the same time very talented."

The Lewis University Flyers will be the first opponent for the Cougars as the teams play Wednesday Jan. 5 at 4 p.m. HST. The Flyers are coming off their second consecutive trip to the NCAA Final Four, which they won in 2003. After winning the MIVA postseason tournament to earn a birth in 2004, Lewis lost to BYU in the NCAA Semifinals.

Senior outside hitter Jeff Soler and junior middle blocker Enrique Escalante return to lead the Flyers. Soler averaged 3.58 kills per game and 1.37 digs in 2004 while Escalante was second the team with a .406 hitting percentage. Escalante also contributed 1.14 kills per game.

The second match for the Cougars will be against Penn State on Friday at 4 p.m., the school where Peterson won his first national championship in 1994. Penn State also earned a birth to the 2004 NCAA Final Four by winning the EIVA postseason tournament. The Nittany Lions lost to Long Beach State in the semifinals.

The top-returning player for the Nittany Lions is senior middle blocker Keith Kowal. A First Team All-American, Kowal led the team with 3.83 kills per game while hitting a blistering .574. He also led the team with 1.39 per game.

BYU will conclude the Outrigger Tournament with a match against Hawai'i. The Warriors had a solid 2004 season, finishing 17-12 overall and 13-9 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. The Warriors' season ended with a loss to UCLA in the MPSF Tournament quarterfinals.

Senior outside hitter Delano Thomas, a 2004 Third Team All-MPSF honoree selection, will lead the Warriors. Thomas led the team with 4.00 kills per game while hitting .298. He led the MPSF with .690 aces per game in conference play.

The Cougars will be back in action Jan. 14 and 15 in Provo against the Cal Baptist Lancers of the NAIA.

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