Taylor Evans and the BYU men's volleyball team will look to get back on track this weekend with two matches against the UC Irvine Anteaters. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
PROVO -- After a week of rest and practice, the No. 7 BYU Cougars will look to get back into the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation race as they take on the No. 10 Anteaters of UC Irvine Friday and Saturday in the Smith Fieldhouse at 7 p.m.
The Cougars are 7-6 overall and 2-4 in the MPSF after dropping two matches to Pepperdine before their week off. BYU has the chance to pick up lost ground in the MPSF regular season race with the two matches against UC Irvine.
"It was a good weekend to have off," BYU Coach Tom Peterson said. "We tried to concentrate on going longer periods without making errors. We hope that the extra practice will help. Also, it was nice for the guys to be able to catch up on school and get healthy."
The Anteaters have had an up-and-down first half of the 2005 season. While Irvine has struggled to a record 6-10 overall and 4-7 in the MPSF, the Anteaters have earned two wins over No. 7-ranked UC Santa Barbara. Of their ten losses, three have come at the hands of UCLA, Long Beach State and Pepperdine, three of the top five teams in the country. Irvine also dropped a match against Cal Baptist, a very tough NAIA team that split with the Cougars.
Last weekend, Feb. 18 and 19, the Anteaters defeated No. 11 Pacific and were swept by No. 9 Stanford. On Friday, Irvine beat Pacific 3-1 and hit .400 as a team while many players had impressive nights. The Anteaters were a completely different squad Saturday, getting swept by Stanford. Much of Irvine's inconsistent play could be attributed to its youth, as the Anteaters start two freshman, four sophomores and one junior. Their roster does not include a single senior.
"I know that they're a good team but also very young," Peterson said. "It's just a matter of time before they get to be very good. They play teams very tough but lose because of inexperience. We want to make sure they don't become a mature team against us."
Jayson Jablonsky has been the top producer for Irvine, averaging 3.73 kills per game and hitting .318. Fellow outside hitter Jon Stellar is second on the team with 3.40 kills per game. The Anteater's middle blockers Aaron Harrell and David Smith have been impressive all season, leading the team in hitting percentage and blocks per game. Harrell is hitting a team-high .487 and averages a team-best 0.92 blocks per game. Smith is second in both categories, hitting .460 and averaging 0.91 blocks.
The Cougars own a 26-5 advantage in the series between the teams, having won nine consecutive overall against the Anteaters and 13 in a row in the Smith Fieldhouse. The last time the teams met, BYU swept Irvine in the first round of the 2004 MPSF Tournament.
Victor Batista is leading the Cougar offensive attack with an average of 4.08 kills per game, which ranks No. 13 in the country. Ivan Perez is second with a 2.76 average while Michael Burke continues to lead the team with a .476 hitting percentage, the eighth best in the nation. He also leads BYU in blocks, averaging 1.22, good for No. 17 nationally. Also among the national leaders for the Cougars is Rob Neilson, whose 13.36 assists per game is second best.
Peterson said these matches are very important for his team and hopes that the crowd will continue to support the Cougars. BYU is leading the nation in attendance with an average of 4,765 fans per match.
"We can't afford to lose more matches, especially at home," Peterson said. "You've got to win league matches to set yourself up to be in a good position for the postseason tournament. We are hoping for another big crowd. It really does help to have all those screaming fans behind us."
Friday's match can be seen on BYU-TV and KBYU-TV. To view the broadcast online, visit www.byutv.org/streaming/ or click here. Both matches will also be broadcast on BYU radio. To listen, visit http://www.byuradio.org/ or click here. To follow the matches online, visit http://www.byucougars.com/ or click here.