It's one of sports' ultimate cliches: a team bands together to overcome a string of tough losses, then rides a wave of late-season success that culminates with the most important game of the year.
It sounds almost sappy, but for the BYU men's volleyball team this cliche is reality.
"We've had a really good year, but it won't mean very much if we can't finish strong," junior Kevin Sagers said. "Getting past UCLA was big for us because it gave us momentum — we were coming off a loss, and the win put us back on track. Our goal is the championship, and we feel like that's within our reach right now."
The Cougars have been a fixture in the top 10 the entire season, but after dropping two straight matches on the road to MPSF rival Hawaii nearly two months ago, they needed something special to change the trajectory of their season.
That something came in the form of an 11-match win streak that vaulted BYU to a No. 2 national ranking. The string of wins included eight victories over top-10 teams, though only three of the wins — a two-match sweep of No. 8 Long Beach State and a 3-1 victory over No. 9 Penn State — came away from the Smith Fieldhouse.
The Cougars are 10-5 on the road, which is where they'll be for the remainder of the season. The rest of the MPSF tournament and the NCAA Championships will be held in Palo Alto, Calif., on the campus of the No. 1-ranked Stanford Cardinal.
Waiting for the Cougars in California will be No. 3 Cal State Northridge, which split a two-match series with BYU in Provo two weeks ago.
BYU might as well look in the mirror when scouting the Matadors, because no team in the MPSF is more similar. The two teams sport identical records (22-8 overall, 15-7 in MPSF play) and both feature a stingy defense — Northridge holds its opponents to a league-low .245 hitting percentage while BYU leads the conference with 409.5 team blocks.
BYU coach Shawn Patchell feels his team improved significantly in the 3-1 win over UCLA and will be ready for a rematch with the Matadors on Thursday.
"I thought (the UCLA match) was a step in the right direction from our last match against Northridge," Patchell said. "We played harder and smarter, and I see us improving. I think we can still improve in the next couple of weeks."
BYU's match against Cal State Northridge will begin at 6 p.m. Live stats will be available through byucougars.com.
No. 2 BYU (22-8) vs. No. 3 Cal State Northridge (22-8)
Thursday, 6 p.m. at Palo Alto, Calif.