PROVO — Since the time Robb Stowell entered the BYU volleyball program the goal has been the same — win a national championship. As he enters the home stretch of his final year that goal seems more attainable than ever.
With just four matches remaining on its regular-season schedule, BYU looks to be a top seed in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) playoffs, which begin on April 21. They're currently ranked No. 4 nationally with an 18-5 overall record.
The Cougars have been hot lately, winning 12 of their last 14 matches while pitching 3-0 shutouts in six of those.
"We're improving," said Stowell. "I don't think we're where we need to be yet, but we're improving and that's what is important. This team has a ton of potential and you can see us getting better every week, and that's exciting."
Stowell is part of a frontline, along with fellow senior Futi Tavana and super sophomore Taylor Sander, that could well be considered the best in the nation. Due to some injuries to Tavana and Sander it's a front that hasn't been able to play together since early March, which is about the same time BYU was hitting its stride.
Tavana started the season on the bench recovering from an Achilles tendon injury with Sander being shelved with a broken hand the same week that Tavana made his return. Sander sat out a full month, forcing the team to make some adjustments while not playing to its potential.
The difference made by Sander's absence was quite stark, as BYU dropped two straight matches to then No. 7-ranked Stanford at home.
"Any time you lose a player as talented as Taylor it's going to hurt you," said Stowell. "Those matches against Stanford we were awful. I think a lot of guys were trying to replace Taylor Sander and you just can't do that. He's such a phenomenal talent that you simply can't replace him. Guys learned to play as best as they could and we adjusted well I think, and I think we grew as a team. Now that everyone is back playing … we're hitting our stride."
Stowell has played on a lot of top lines while at BYU, including a line in 2007 that included Ivan Perez and Yosleyder Cala, which was one of BYU's best hitting lines ever. Overall though, Stowell believes that the current frontline holds even more potential.
"Our strength is our blocking ability," he said. "Futi (Tavana) is the best middle blocker there is and certainly the best I've played with. Taylor can jump out of the gym and when we're all playing well you get the feeling that no one can get a ball past us. I feel we're good at all of the other aspects as well, but blocking is definitely the strength of this team and the best I've ever been a part of."
BYU leads the nation in total team blocks per set at 3.3.
While the frontline of Stowell, Tavana and Sander lead the way, others have stepped up big throughout the season. Players such as freshman Josue Rivera, junior Russ Lavaja, senior Joe Kauliakamoa, and freshman Jaylen Reyes, among others, have all played huge roles.
"Josue (Rivera) steps up when he has to. His serve is great and that's a big boost for us," said Stowell. "Jaylen (Reyes) has been a big emotional leader for us and I personally think Joe (Kauliakamoa) is the best setter in the country. Then there's Russ (Lavaja), who is a middle blocker. There's not much difference between what he can do and Futi. We have a lot of great guys and it takes everyone, from our regular players to our practice players. We really have a complete team this year — more complete than any team I've been a part of."
That said, Stowell feels the opportunity is as ripe as it's ever been to win it all.
"If we don't win the national championship it will be a disappointment," he said. "We have everything we need, but we certainly won't consider our careers here at BYU as a disappointment if we don't. We've been able to grow and be part of a great program. But yeah, it will be a huge disappointment for all of us if we don't win it all this season."
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