PROVO — During the spring, there’s little question where the biggest show in Provo is located.
On certain Friday and Saturday nights, fans and students pack BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse to the rafters — creating an electric atmosphere for the perennial national championship-contending BYU men’s volleyball team. The Cougars thrive on the atmosphere, which is unique from any other college volleyball venue in the country.
The star of that show during the last four seasons has been BYU senior Taylor Sander, a player whose accomplishments and raw talents are truly exceptional and even extraordinary.
“He does things on the court that no one else is capable of and you see it just about every night,” said BYU coach Chris McGown.
Sander’s extraordinary abilities have led to extraordinary accomplishments, including being named an All-American in each of his three seasons at BYU, along with being named the national player of the year as a junior.
As with most top athletes, the abilities of the 6-foot-4 Huntington Beach, Calif., native were immediately apparent.
McGown, who has been around the program since his father Carl started coaching in the early 1990s, remembers well the first time he saw Sander up close.
“I had heard a lot about Sander before he got here, but that first time practicing — I mean, I’ve seen a lot of top athletes play on the (Smith Fieldhouse) court, but I saw Sander do things that first day that I simply haven’t seen before,” McGown recalled. “You could tell immediately that he had the ability to be something really special.”
Sander joined an experienced and talented 2011 squad and soon rose to starter status despite his inexperience. He finished that first year second in total kills while being named the MPSF freshman of the year and a second-team All-American.
He also earned himself a nickname that first year — the Sandman.
Then junior middle blocker Quentin Smith dubbed Sander with the nickname that has endured to this day. Indeed, home matches involve Sandman posters and T-shirts that add to the already rich Smith Fieldhouse environment.
“I really had nothing to do with naming myself that, but it’s stuck and I don’t mind it,” Sander said. “I love playing at home and yeah, all that Sandman stuff is fine, but for me it’s all about the team and playing the best I can.”
With his nickname in place and hype largely realized, Sander kept his head down and focused on making improvements into his sophomore and junior seasons. He parlayed his focus into two straight first-team All-America inclusions and a national player of the year award.
“That’s part of what sets Taylor apart,” McGown said. “He’s very competitive and is driven to constantly get better. He’s never satisfied with what he’s done, but just focused on getting that much better. He’s made improvements in every year that he’s been here.”
Key improvements made involved refining the finer, less-heralded aspects of being a great volleyball player.
“From day one he could jump through the roof and pound that ball, but it’s the passing of the ball, the serving, the digging and everything else where he’s really worked to get better,” McGown said. “When he started out he may have been the worst passer of the ball on the team. Now he’s the best. It’s just one example of the strides he’s made.”
Another key stride was in the leadership department.
The unassuming Sander spent his first two years quietly going about his business, but that changed heading into his junior year. According to McGown, he challenged his star player to become more of a vocal leader.
Like he does with most things, Sander rose to the challenge.
“He commands a presence and players look to him whether he likes it or not,” McGown said. “You can’t be your team’s best player and do it in a vacuum. He understands that and he’s now a true leader in every sense. He practices hard every day and he’s always working hard to lift those around him.”
Sander’s play and leadership have contributed greatly to BYU’s current No. 3 national ranking and regular-season MPSF crown. The Cougars will now host the MPSF tournament beginning this Saturday as they work to secure a berth into the six-team NCAA championship, where Sander would attempt to accomplish the only missing piece from his stellar resume.
“I want to win it bad,” Sander said. “I remember coming just one game short of winning it all last year and it was the worst feeling ever, so I think that‘s been driving me more this season more than anything. I want to help bring a national championship back to BYU. It’s the ultimate goal and really the only goal left.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @BrandonCGurney
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company