I guess I just played kind of free. —Brenden Sander
COLUMBUS, Ohio — There's something about the month of May that brings out the best in BYU's Brenden Sander.
While almost always playing at a high level, the junior outside hitter always saves his best for the end of the year, with Thursday's performance in the Cougars' sweep of Long Beach in the NCAA semis as the latest bit of evidence.
Sander has rarely, if ever, been better, with his stats speaking for themselves.
The Huntington Beach, California, native slammed through his first eight kill attempts on Thursday and finished with a match-high 15 kills on a .619 hitting percentage. It was the fourth straight time he's logged double-digit kills and a plus-.400 kill percentage in NCAA tournament matches dating back to last season.
It's a good thing his stats speak so loudly, turns out, because the soft-spoken and humble Sander has a hard time talking about himself and did so again after the win.
“I guess I just played kind of free,” Sander offered. “All my guys helping me out — we’re just all together as a team, so I don’t know, all of us coming together boosts me up a lot and has me jumping a lot higher and hitting the ball a lot harder.”
BYU coach Shawn Olmstead had no trouble speaking of Sander's play, however, noting a difference he's seen since the start of NCAA Tournament play.
“We’ve been able to see that little by little recently — that hunger and that leadership,” Olmstead said. “He’s a quiet kid, but he just leads by example and we’ve just being seeing it more and more in practices.”
Perhaps the increased focus and play is simply an issue of health.
Coming off of a knee injury to start the year, Sander wasn't able to perform at the level he did a season ago. Coaches even had to cut his play sometimes, as the knee issues proved hard to get over.
“We had to just shut him down,” Olmstead said. “We were doing all that we could to help him, but he pushed through it. He went into the weight room more. He did more exercises that the medical staff asked him to do and did it even more. And he still continues to do that — he’s still going over and over every day and he’s a good kid to have on your side.”
As always, Sander seemed a bit embarrassed and bewildered to talk about why he plays so well in May preferring to express gratitude for the opportunities he has and will have come Saturday in the NCAA championship match.
“I’m not sure, to be honest. I have no clue,” Sander said of the reason. “It’s just a great stage to be (on) and it’s a blessing to be here with such a great team and for such a great school, representing myself, my family and this school as the best we all can. It’s just a great blessing.”