Jaren Wilkey/BYU, Jaren Wilkey/BYU
BYU's Taylor Sander celebrates a game point in the first set against Long Beach State. The BYU Men's Volleyball team defeats Long Beach State in the Quarterfinals of the MPSF Tournament.

PROVO — The BYU men’s volleyball team opens the season against Hawaii on Friday night with the same expectation it has every year — to win a national championship. Many Cougar sports programs set their sights on a national championship year-in and year-out, but perhaps no other program has it as readily attainable most years as coach Chris McGown's team.

Most seasons see the Cougars right on the cusp of a national championship, and last season was no different. The 2012 squad finished with a 24-7 record and enjoyed a No. 1 national ranking throughout much of the season before coming up just short of a berth in the final four.

So what does BYU need to get over the top and achieve its ultimate goal of a national championship? According to McGown, it starts upstairs.

“We need to be better mentally,” McGown explained. “We have the talent and the fundamentals to compete with anyone, but I really feel that we lacked mental toughness during key situations last year, and we’ve worked all offseason to address that and hopefully improve that.”

Talent-wise, BYU returns some of the top players in the country, starting with All-American Taylor Sander, who spent his offseason with the USA national team working on all aspects of his game.

“Taylor got to be around guys and learn how the top players approach the game and how hard they work on every aspect of their game, and I think that will help him a lot and in turn help us as a team,” McGown said. “He’s a guy who hasn’t wanted to be a leader, but he wants that now, and I think that’s where he’s really going to improve.”

Sander was widely considered not only BYU’s best player last season, but the best player in the country. His return is huge for the team, but the loss of three standouts (Rob Stowell, Futi Tavana and Joe Kauliakamoa) may hurt the team.

“I don’t know how you replace guys like that, but we have some good talent returning that I believe will step up this season,” McGown said. “I don’t know specifically who some of the guys will be, but hopefully we’ll learn which players will step up to replace them through the first few games of the year.”

Chief among those ready to step up is senior middle blocker Rus Lavaja, who McGown believes could reach All-American status in his bid to replace Tavana. “Rus was very good for us last year and is probably a more efficient attacker than Futi was for us last year.”

Replacing Stowell at opposite likely will be freshman Ben Patch, who is long on talent, but short on experience. “Ben has all the physical gifts you could want and hopefully he learns the game quickly because he could really help us this year.”

Replacing Kauliakamoa at center will likely be seasoned senior Ryan Boyce, who played a key role last season.

Other key returning players include outside hitter Josue Rivera, who started every game last season as a freshman, and libero Jaylen Reyes.

“I like our team this year and the potential we have,” McGown concluded. “We have a good mix of experienced players and some new players who I believe can really help us. I think we have guys that aren’t only talented, but players who will be great teammates and leaders. We’ve worked a lot on gaining that mental edge that I feel we lacked for a lot of last season, and hopefully that puts us over the top.”

Email: bgurney@desnews.com

Twitter: @BrandonCGurney