PROVO — It's a fairly simple concept to grasp; defending against two is far easier than against three.
Stanford's men's volleyball team learned this all too well during its two matches at the Smith Fieldhouse in early February. The result was an uncommonly easy two-match sweep of the BYU men's team while only dropping a single set.
A week before the match, BYU had lost the services of star sophomore Taylor Sander to a broken wrist, putting the team in flux.
"They took away our middles and they took away Rob (Stowell) and made us beat them on the outsides where we had two new freshmen out there trying to fill in for Taylor (Sander) and they just weren't quite ready for it," recalled coach Chris McGown. "Stanford is a really good team and without Taylor out there they were able to beat us on two straight nights, keying mostly on shutting down two spots instead of three."
Losing any starter to an injury would set any team back, but losing a player like Sander, whom most consider the best outside hitter in the country — well, it's not easy.
Fortunately for McGown, he'll have Sander along his front line when BYU matches up against Stanford on Thursday night in its MPSF semifinal match at the Galen Center. With a full lineup, McGown expects a different result this time around.
"I like our matchup — I think we match up real well with this team," he said. "Having Taylor in the match will be a whole new experience for them and they won't be able to defend us the same way. It's a great opportunity and we like how we're playing volleyball going in."
With the goal being a national championship, Thursday night's match can very well be viewed as a must-win for either team. While the MPSF tournament champion receives an automatic bid to the NCAA final four next weekend, the general belief is that the one at-large bid will go to the tournament runner-up.
"That's my uneducated opinion looking at it and how it will play out," said McGown. "It's always been my belief that the final two teams in the MPSF tournament will be the two teams that go to the NCAAs. That's how it usually works out and I can't really see it being different this year with all the top teams in the MPSF having similar records."
So what does the team need to get done in order to beat Stanford this time around? According to McGown it's simple — get the ball in play and let BYU's dominant front do its work.
"It's all about us receiving serve and it's been that way for us all season," said McGown. "We're really good offensively all over the floor and we can come at you in a lot of different ways, so teams can't really be great against us unless they give up something else or if we simply can't set up our attack effectively. It's not always easy and it really won't be at sea level with our guys used to playing up here in altitude."
For this reason the team left for Southern California on Tuesday to train and get used to the different flight of the ball that comes with playing at a much different altitude.
"At sea level you can absolutely crush the ball when you serve, when if you do it (in Provo) you'll hit it way out-of-bounds," explained McGown. "It's not an easy thing, but I do think that with the extra time practicing there that we'll get used to it."
BYU's match against Stanford starts at 6 p.m. MT and will be carried live by BYUtv. The winner of the match will go on to play the winner of USC vs. UC-Irvine this Saturday in the finals.
BYU (24-6) vs. Stanford (21-6)
Today, 6 p.m.
Galen Center, Los Angeles
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company