Michael Burke (3) and Victor Batista will lead BYU into MPSF play as the Cougars play UCSB Friday and Saturday night in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
PROVO -- After splitting two matches with the Cal Baptist Lancers, the BYU men's volleyball team will go on the road to open Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play against the Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara at Robertson Gym, Friday and Saturday. The Cougars won the 2004 MPSF regular season championship with a 20-2 record.
This weekend's matches (Jan. 21 and 22) will be the 31st and 32nd between BYU and UCSB, with BYU owning the series lead at 17-13. Although the Gauchos hold the advantage in Santa Barbara with an 8-6 record against the Cougars, BYU has won four of five in Robertson Gym.
UCSB opened the season by being swept in three straight matches at its own tournament, the Elephant Bar Invitational. The Gauchos avenged one of those losses against Long Beach State on Saturday, Jan. 15 with a 3-1 win to open conference play. UCSB, 2-3 overall and 2-0 in the MPSF, defeated UC San Diego in a thrilling, come-from-behind 3-2 win on Monday.
Leading the way for the Gauchos is sophomore opposite Evan Patak, who averages 4.93 kills per game and hits .341. Theo Brunner, a freshman middle blocker, leads the team with a .435 hitting percentage while averaging 2.40 kills per game. UCSB hits .310 as a team while allowing opponents to hit at a .336 clip.
According to BYU Coach Tom Peterson, playing at Santa Barbara will be a big test for his young team. He said his team will need to adjust to not having the support of the home crowd when playing on the road and focus on playing consistently.
"They get pretty rowdy at Santa Barbara," Peterson said. "That's kind of a worry to us, that we're so young, so many new faces in the lineup and all. We can't get caught up going to Santa Barbara, where it's a little bit different atmosphere."
BYU entered last weekend's matches undefeated at 3-0 but lost Friday night in five games. The Cougars looked strong at times but Peterson said they were too inconsistent to beat the Lancers, the top team in the NAIA. On Saturday they came out with much more confidence and swept Cal Baptist, 30-22, 30-21, 30-27.
Peterson said the key to Cougar's win on Saturday was playing with more consistency and relying on the team's depth.
"Depth is the strength of our team," Peterson said. "If everyone plays at a high level, it will be a strength all season long."
BYU hit .463 on the match and junior setter Rob Neilson had various options, with three players finishing with double figure kills and senior middle blocker Michael Burke hitting .667 (8-0-12).
So far this season the Cougars are getting contributions from various players, led by Burke. He leads the team with a .487 hitting percentage and a 1.24 blocks per game average. His 3.14 kills per game average is second best. Junior outside hitter Victor Batista leads BYU in kills with a 3.90 average and junior libero Brian Rowley is averaging a team best 2.10 digs per game.
Peterson said he is pleased that his team is making progress and many players are contributing but added the Cougars will need to play better to compete in the MPSF.
"I know we're not playing good enough to win all of our matches right now," Peterson said. "To beat UCLA and UCSB coming up, we'll have to play better than what we did tonight (Jan. 15). This team does have a tremendous upside and will be very good if we continue to work hard."
Friday and Saturday's matches against UC Santa Barbara will begin at 7 p.m. (CST). There will not be any live stats or broadcast.