Victor Batista and the Cougars will take on the Long Beach State 49ers in the Fieldhouse in a rematch of the 2004 National Championship match. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
PROVO -- Coming off back-to-back sweeps of the University of Hawai'i, the BYU men's volleyball team is looking to continue its ascent in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation standings with two matches against rival Long Beach State Friday and Saturday (March 25 and 26). The Cougars have now won seven of eight matches and moved from as low as tenth in the league to a tie with Hawai'i for fourth.
BYU is 14-7 overall and 9-5 in the MPSF while Long Beach State is 14-7 and 8-6. The two teams are in a much different situation than they were in 2004. The Cougars were No. 1 while the 49ers were No. 2. They met four times throughout the season and while BYU won every match, they were all hotly contested. Two of the wins were in the MPSF and NCAA tournament championships.
"They're our rivals as of the last while," BYU coach Tom Peterson said. "They're a very good team and are very talented. These may be the most exciting matches of the season. Hopefully our crowd will continue to support us like they have."
The matches are not only important for the rivalry, but more so for MPSF tournament seeding. BYU's goal is to jump from fourth to at least third, thus being able to avoid playing the host of the tournament, the MPSF regular season champion, until the final. Pepperdine currently holds the top record at 16-1, two matches ahead of UCLA.
"This weekend is huge for the playoffs," Peterson said. "It's important so we can be the hot team at the end of the season and for seeding. We don't want to meet the first place team in the semifinals. We feel like we need to get to the final of the MPSF tournament to get to the final four."
There are two roads BYU can take to get to the NCAA Final Four. Winning the MPSF Tournament would guarantee a punched ticket to the championships. The other path is earning the at-large berth, which is generally awarded to the next best team in the MPSF. A strong regular season finish and going far in the MPSF Tournament would give the Cougars a shot, but there is no guarantee as the at-large team is determined by a selection committee.
Long Beach is currently riding a five-match winning streak, four of which have come against non-league foes. The 49ers have struggled in league play recently, losing three straight before defeating UC San Diego.
Tyler Hildebrand, a first-team All-American in 2004, leads the 49ers. He comes into this weekend averaging a nation's-best 14.01 assists per game while contributing 1.23 digs and 0.64 blocks. His precise setting allows Long Beach to hit .343, the fourth best percentage in the nation.
The 49er middles, Duncan Budinger and Teddy Liles are a big reason for the high percentage as they each hit .416. Opposite hitter Yassir Sliti, second on the team with a 3.70 kills per game average, is not far behind at .365. Robert Tarr is one of the nation's best outside hitters, averaging 4.97 kills per game while hitting .349.
Paul Munoz leads Long Beach in digs at 2.16 per game while Nathan Hagstrom is second with an average of 1.80. Hagstrom also leads the team in aces at 0.30 per game.
After BYU's four wins over the Beach in 2004, the all-time series between the teams is even at 12-12. The 49ers owned the series early, winning the first five and 12 of 17. The Cougars took control in 2002 and have now won seven consecutive, including three straight in the Fieldhouse.
BYU had one of its best weekends of the season against Hawai'i, sweeping the Warriors in both matches and showing a cast improvement in many areas. The Cougars posted season-high block totals with 17.0 on Friday and 18.0 on Saturday and were efficient on offense.
Rob Neilson, the Sports Imports/AVCA Division I-II Men's National Player of the Week, set career highs in blocks both nights against Hawai'i. On Friday, he had seven to surpass his previous mark and then posted nine to break that record. Peterson said he attributed the honor to Neilson's dedication and hard work.
"It's a great honor for him," Peterson said. "It indicates the work he's put in to get to where he is now. It indicates all the hard work he's put in lately. Hopefully it indicates how we're starting to play as a team as well."
Neilson was not the only one on with his blocking. Victor Batista had five and eight while Michael Burke set a career high on Friday with 11 and followed that up with six on Saturday.
Ivan Perez continued to play well after posting a career-high 24 kills against the University of the Pacific, recording 18 and 14 in the Hawai'i matches while hitting .418 (32-9-55).
The matches against Long Beach will end a four-match home stand for BYU. The Cougars will then play two at California State Northridge, April 1 and 2.
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. Friday's match 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.