PROVO — When a team comes just short of reaching its ultimate goal, coaches, players and fans will ask themselves questions that all begin with two words: What if …
For the BYU men's volleyball team, which finished just one match short of a berth into the national Final Four, the "what ifs" are plentiful.
What if it had won just one of two tiebreaking sets in matches against UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State? What if it didn't get off to slow starts in too many key matches? And perhaps most of all: What if star spiker Taylor Sander didn't have to sit out a month with a broken hand?
Had any of those "what ifs" been tweaked just a bit, the Cougars likely would have won the MPSF Conference, hosted the MPSF tournament and earned a berth into the national Final Four.
Instead, BYU found itself without home-court advantage in the MPSF playoffs and subsequently lost in the second round to Stanford in four sets.
Reviewing everything that could have happened during this past season — but didn't — could surely drive a coach nuts. For this reason Chris McGown, who is fresh off his first season as BYU's head coach, is focusing on making sure those "what ifs" don't happen next season.
"It's crazy thinking of all the things that almost broke our way and didn't," said McGown. "We just have to make sure that we're better in critical situations. As a coach, I don't think we lacked anything from a personnel standpoint, but we just didn't play as clean as we needed to during key moments."
So how does a coach fix that? McGown did his best during the season to simulate critical situations during practice sessions, but too many times found his players making mental errors when those situations arose during matches.
According to McGown, a lot of mental errors came about from an overall lack of intensity.
"I just need to relate better to these guys that there is no such thing as metering oneself or saving oneself for later in the match," explained McGown. "We have to bring 100 percent focus and 100 percent intensity in every situation we're on the court. As a coach, I wish I could have done better in expressing that to the players, so that's the main thing we need to work on for next season."
It's not easy for a first-year coach to establish that type of trust in his players, and McGown is hoping the trust will come with time.
"Overall, I think we did some really good things, but I just need to be invested better into the lives of the players and you can't manufacture that," said McGown, who was hired last summer. "It takes time and I hope that with me being there for a year now that I can have that depth of relationship with the players because you're going to ask them to do things that they don't always want to do, so building that better relationship will help with that, I'm hoping."
Along with establishing better relationships, McGown will also have to replace three senior starters in Rob Stowell, Futi Tavana and Joe Kauliakamoa.
"Replacing guys like that will be difficult because they were all such great players," said McGown. "That's part of being a college coach, though, and I like a lot of the guys coming up (and) guys coming off of their missions and I think we have the potential to be really good."
Three guys that will vie to replace Tavana at middle blocker are Devin Young, Nick Valencia and Russ Lavaja, who saw a lot of significant playing time this past year. In replacing Stowell at opposite hitter, incoming freshman Ben Patch has lots of potential and will work with Steve Rindfleisch, Shane Tye and Phil Fuchs at the position. At setter, McGown will look at Ryan Boyce and returned missionary Tyler Heap to replace Kauliakamoa.
One player who is returning is Sander, who may not have just been the best player on BYU last year — but perhaps the best player in the nation. Sander has a busy summer schedule ahead as part of the U.S. national team.
McGown believes that will be a huge benefit.
"The speed he'll be playing at this summer will be quite a bit faster than what he's used to, so I really think the game will slow down for him," said McGown. "He's obviously phenomenal with his hits, but he can use some work passing the ball and with his blocking. And I think those are areas where he'll see some good improvement.
"Overall, I like how we competed this last season and I'm excited for our potential next season."
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