Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
BYU's Taylor Sander and Devin Young celebrate a point against UC Santa Barbara during the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament in Provo Thursday, April 24, 2014.
I think going into the tournament this year the guys understand what mental preparation means a little bit better. —BYU coach Chris McGown

CHICAGO — A lot has changed since the last time BYU visited Chicago, site of this week’s NCAA men’s volleyball championships.

The Cougars started the 2014 season inauspiciously with back-to-back losses to Loyola, located in the Windy City, and Lewis, located just outside Chicago. Loyola beat BYU on Jan. 3 in straight sets (28-26, 25-23, 25-22), with Lewis winning the next night in four sets (25-22, 22-25, 25-21, 25-22).

The losses stung at the time, but both BYU's coaches and players believe the defeats ultimately helped them get better.

“We thought we were kind of good, but we got stomped on. It woke us up. ... We just got hungry,” said BYU star senior Taylor Sander.

The Cougars responded to those early defeats with 18 wins in 20 games — eventually vaulting themselves to a top national ranking and an MPSF championship.

The Cougars now return to where their season began — Gentile Arena on the campus of Loyola — in hopes of achieving their ultimate goal of a national championship. It's the second time in two years the Cougars have reached the NCAA championships, and they hope for a better result this time around.

Last season saw BYU make it all the way to the championship match, where it fell to UC Irvine in straight sets. The goal this year is obviously to walk away with a different result while learning from some of last year's mistakes.

“I think looking back that we were maybe too loose,” said BYU coach Chris McGown. “So I think going into the tournament this year the guys understand what mental preparation means a little bit better.”

Overall, McGown feels confident in the level his team is playing at — seeing much improvement since the last visit to Chicago.

“I’m proud of how the guys have prepared,” McGown said. “They’ve worked hard all year long and we’ve had a lot of good competition. ... Hopefully we’ve done enough.”

The Cougars face Stanford in the semifinals Thursday at 5 p.m. MDT. The game will be streamed live on and will be the fourth time the Cougars have squared off against the Cardinal this season.

Stanford beat Erskine in straight sets Tuesday to earn a semifinal berth with the Cougars.

BYU won all three matches against Stanford this season, including last Saturday's straight-set win for the MPSF championship. The teams are obviously very familiar with one another, which might make for a defensive struggle come Thursday night, McGown said.

“I think it becomes a little more difficult for both teams offensively just because the defenses get a little bit smarter and now it‘s harder for the offenses to catch up,” he said.

Should BYU get past Stanford, it will face either Loyola or Penn State, who play Thursday in the other semifinal.


Twitter: @BrandonCGurney