Journey to Title Begins with Gauchos

Rob Neilson and the BYU Cougars will look to defend their 2005 MPSF Championship starting this weekend with a quarterfinal match against UC Santa Barbara. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)

PROVO -- The No. 3 seed BYU men's volleyball team will kick off the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament with a first round match against UC Santa Barbara in the Smith Fieldhouse Saturday at 7 p.m. (MST), the winner advancing to the tournament semifinals. The Cougars and Gauchos split two matches in January, with UCSB winning the first in four and BYU sweeping the second.

The Cougars, ranked No. 6 in the latest USA Today/CSTV Top 15 Division I-II Men's Coaches Poll, clinched third place in the MPSF at 15-7 with two four-game wins last weekend (April 15 and 16) over Stanford, finishing the regular season with an overall record of 20-9. The Gauchos, the sixth seed and ranked No. 7, lost to Pepperdine last week before concluding the season with a win over USC. UCSB finished at 15-13 overall and 13-9 in the MPSF.

BYU coach Tom Peterson said the wins over Stanford were the biggest matches of the season up to that point. He said this weekend's match is even more significant.

"This is now the most important match," Peterson said. "Single elimination, do or die. It's a compliment to our guys to nail down the third seed in the conference and to be ranked above Hawai'i and Long Beach State after being up and down. Now we have to prove that this is where we belong."

Pepperdine, which won the MPSF regular season and will host the semifinal and championship matches of the tournament, earned a first-round bye and will play the lowest seed that advances past the quarterfinals. The semifinals and final will be played Thursday and Saturday, April 28 and 30. The semifinal matches will begin at 5 and 7:30 p.m. (PST) while the final will be played at 6:30 p.m. (PST). The winner of the league tournament will automatically qualify for the NCAA Final Four at UCLA.

The other quarterfinal matches are No. 4 seed Hawai'i hosting No. 5 seed Long Beach State and No. 2 seed UCLA playing the winner of the play-in match, No. 8 Stanford at No. 7 Cal State Northridge.

UCSB has struggled recently, losing five-of-six before earning a win over USC, the second-to-last place team in the MPSF. The Gauchos are still a very dangerous team, one that Peterson said the Cougars will not take lightly.

"They were ahead of us for most of the season," he said. "It's kind of a grudge match. We hope the crowd will come out. It would be great to have that continued support."

Opposite hitter Evan Patak, the national and MPSF leader in kills per game, is the heart and soul of UCSB. He averaged 5.65 kills per game throughout the season and 5.90 during MPSF play. His 54 service aces and 0.55 per game average are also among the nation's elite. Along with his serving and hitting prowess, he averages 1.04 digs and 0.56 blocks per game.

"He's the top point scorer in the country," Peterson said. "He'll be a top nominee for player of the year. When he gets on a roll they're a tough team to stop. We have to slow him down and not let anyone else have a great match."

While Patak carries much of the load, he is not the Gauchos only offensive threat. Michael Kennedy and Theo Brunner team up to make an efficient and productive tandem in the middle. Kennedy leads the team in blocks per game at 1.03 and is second in hitting percentage at .433 while contributing 2.36 kills per game. Brunner, a freshman, is first in hitting percentage at .487 and second in blocks per game at 0.87.

The outside hitter position has been handled by committee all season with Nathan Wack, Jake Wiens and Bryan Berman all seeing significant playing time. UCSB also does not have a permanent setter as Bart Kowalski and Dane Jensen have shared time directing the offense.

Saturday's match will mark the 33rd meeting between the schools in 16 seasons, with BYU owning the 18-14 advantage. The Gauchos won the first four meetings from 1990 to 1991 before the Cougars finally picked up a victory in 1992. BYU is 11-5 at home versus UCSB and has won the last eight in Provo, a streak that began in 1998.

When the Cougars and Gauchos faced off in January, Evan Patak had his way at the net in the first match, pounding out 32 kills while frustrating the BYU passing game with five aces and several other difficult serves. He also added nine digs and two blocks. Ivan Perez was solid for the Cougars in that match, a 3-1 loss, tallying 17 kills, 13 digs and two aces.

BYU was able to limit Patak to 11 kills the next night and shut the rest of the team down, earning the sweep. Victor Batista had his best hitting match of the season, going for a career-high 23 kills while hitting for a blistering .656 (23-2-32) percentage and collecting eight digs.

Ivan Perez was on top of his game in the wins over Stanford, recording 19 kills in both matches while totaling 14 digs. Victor Batista was solid as well, recording 35 kills in the two matches, including a match-high 21 in the second. BYU's record-setting service was another part of the back-to-back victories as the Cougars recorded eight each night to increase their all-time school mark to 169. Casey Patterson had seven of those aces.

Peterson said his team has shown improvement all season and hopes that the players' hard work will culminate in a run to the tournament title.

"Our whole goal is to get rid of our inexperienced mistakes and it comes down to this one match," he said. "It comes down to how long we can play at a high level without making errors."

Peterson added that the whole team will have to play well for the Cougars to have a chance at winning matches in the tournament.

"I think we all have to play well," he said. "We can't afford to have one or two guys not contribute. We have to do it by committee."

Saturday's match will begin at 7 p.m. in the Smith Fieldhouse. Ticket prices will be $10 for general admission and $6 for students. Students with All-Sport Cards will be admitted for $5. The gates will open at 5:30 p.m. A limited number of reserved tickets in Section B, the center section of the east side, are available and can be purchased by calling the ticket office at (801) 422-2981.

Saturday's match will be broadcast on BYU Radio. To listen, visit http://www.byuradio.org/ or click here. To follow the match online, visit http://www.byucougars.com/ or click here.

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