Michael Burke will lead the Cougars in two important matches against the University of Hawai'i. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
PROVO -- The No. 6 BYU Cougars will play two of the most important matches of their season against the No. 3 University of Hawai'i Warriors Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Smith Fieldhouse. BYU is 7-5 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation while Hawai'i is 9-3. Two wins for the Cougars would make both teams 9-5 and give BYU the edge over the Warriors in the standings.
"We have a chance to really help ourselves in the standings," BYU coach Tom Peterson said. "It doesn't look like we'll be able to host the MPSF tournament but our goal is to finish second or third. This would allow us to play the top seed in the final. We still have to play much better to finish third."
The winner of the MPSF tournament receives an automatic berth in the NCAA Final Four. The regular season champion hosts the tournament.
BYU split two matches with the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. March 11 and 12 and are now 12-7 overall and 7-5 in the MPSF. The Cougars are No. 6 in the Volleyball Magazine and the CSTV/USA Today Coaches Polls.
The matches with Hawai'i are the second and third of the season between the teams. On Jan. 7, BYU defeated the Warriors in Honolulu in the championship match of the Outrigger Tournament, 3-1. Peterson said a lot has changed since that meeting.
"That win doesn't mean much," he said. "They're a much better team now. They're in a groove and are one of the top-three teams to beat."
Hawai'i is coming off two wins over Ball State and has been solid all season. In matches against top-15 teams, the Warriors are 7-3, including a win over then-No. 1 UCLA. One of their losses was to the Bruins while the other two were against No. 1 Pepperdine. Of Hawai'i's 13 wins, eight have been sweeps.
The Warriors have four players averaging over two kills per game but Pedro Azenha and Matt Bender carry the bulk of the load. Azenha leads the way with a 4.44 average while Bender is close behind at 3.73. Maulia Le Barre leads the team in blocks and hitting percentage at 1.39 and .438. The top back-row player for Hawai'i is Alfred Reft, who averages 2.67 digs per game.
Peterson said that the Warriors are one of the most athletic teams BYU will face all season.
"This is a very athletic and tall team," he said. "They're emotional too. When they get on a roll they're really hard to stop. A large crowd in the Fieldhouse will help us keep the momentum on our side."
Not only would a large crowd help the Cougars with the momentum but it would also aide in the race for the top attendance in the nation. Through six matches, BYU is averaging 4,191 fans while Hawai'i averages 4,256 through 13 home contests.
Including this season's win, the Cougars have won four straight over the Warriors and own a 19-12 advantage in the all-time series. Last season BYU took two in Honolulu and in 2003 knocked Hawai'i out of the MPSF Tournament with a sweep in the semifinals. In Provo, the Cougars are 10-3 against the Warriors.
Michael Burke continues to lead BYU with a .486 hitting percentage. Despite hitting below his average against Pacific, he is still among the national and league leaders. Ivan Perez came on strong against the Tigers in Saturday's loss, contributing a career-best 24 kills and tying a career-high with two aces. He also raised his hitting percentage to the highest it has been all season, .301.
The Cougars have also added a new weapon to their repertoire, the service ace. In the last four matches, a span of 14 games, BYU has totaled 35 for an average of 2.5 per game. Prior to those four matches, the Cougars were averaging 1.28 aces per game.
After two matches with Hawai'i, the Cougars will have two with league-rival Long Beach State in the Fieldhouse. BYU defeated the 49ers four times in 2004, including wins in the MPSF and NCAA tournament finals.
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.