...they’re a great team and it’s going to be a battle out there. And we love that. It’s so hard to get to this point in this season and play for a national championship, so we’re just blessed and we’re going to leave it all out there. —Taylor Sander, BYU men's volleyball
LOS ANGELES — The BYU men’s volleyball team is just one match away from its ultimate goal of winning an NCAA championship. It’s a feat the team hasn’t accomplished since 2004 despite being among the nation’s best every year since then.
To accomplish that goal, the Cougars must beat defending national champion UC Irvine, which rolled into the NCAA finals after sweeping Loyola-Chicago (26-24, 25-18, 29-27) in the semifinals. Both teams are very familiar with each other, having already played twice. BYU won both meetings, the second one a 3-2 come-from-behind victory at UCI, which was ranked No. 1 at the time.
The March 1 road win over the Anteaters vaulted BYU to No. 1, and the Cougars have been there ever since. In that match, freshman sensation Ben Patch recorded 35 kills and burst on the national scene.
The Cougars have won 14 of 15 matches since the upset road win, while the Anteaters have gone 9-3. They were bounced in the semifinals of the MPSF tournament by Long Beach State.
BYU coach Chris McGown knows UC Irvine will give his team all it can handle.
“They are really deep and they’re phenomenally talented,” McGown said. “They’re familiar with this type of environment, so I don’t know if (past results) matter. We think it’s up for grabs.”
Saturday's title tilt will be televised live at 7 p.m. MDT on ESPNU.
UC Irvine is led 6-foot-6 senior Kevin Tillie, who paced the team with 351 kills on a .351 hitting percentage, and middle blocker Collin Mehring, who had 183 kills and a team-high 124 blocks. UCI's best player, however, may be sophomore Michael Brinkley, who is widely regarded as the best libero in the country.
The Cougars are led by MPSF Player of the Year Taylor Sander and MPSF Newcomer of the Year Patch. They have 441 and 411 kills on the season, respectively.
None of the above stats matter come Saturday night, however, as far as Sander and his teammates are concerned.
“It’s the national championship match and whoever shows up on Saturday night (will determine the champion),” Sander said. “The past is basically done with and we’re just going to have to play our volleyball and they’re a great team and it’s going to be a battle out there. And we love that. It’s so hard to get to this point in this season and play for a national championship, so we’re just blessed and we’re going to leave it all out there.”
The Cougars hope to just keep playing like they have while receiving the type of fan support they received Thursday night against Penn State.
“The atmosphere here is just amazing and it’s incredible to think that we’re here just one game away from our goal,” Patch said. “For me to be just a freshman and to be a part of all this is incredible, but we can’t think about all that and just have to come out and play like we know we can. We know what got us here and that’s just being who we are, so that’s who we’ll try to continue to be and hopefully things work out,.
"But yeah, it’s incredibly exciting.”