I wouldn’t have wanted to go out another way. —BYU senior Brenden Sander
PROVO — He's done it throughout most of his career, and he did it again in his final match at the Smith Fieldhouse on Saturday night.
BYU senior Brenden Sander, playing at his top form throughout, led his team to a four-set win over UCLA (17-25, 25-21, 25-18, 25-21) in the MPSF Conference championship match, securing a spot in the NCAA tournament in the process.
Sander led all players with 18 kills on a .485 hitting percentage. Stats that surprised no one who has followed his career over the past three years, and certainly came as no surprise to BYU coach Shawn Olmstead.
“It’s just Brenden and what he’s been able to do throughout his career,” Olmstead said. “You could see it in his eyes. You could see it in his eyes in the semifinals as well. You just saw his energy from the start. The guys definitely feed off that.”
Sander was at his best during the final two sets, and his team followed his lead. After a horrendous start in the first set, where not much of anything went right, things started getting in rhythm, as momentum sharply shifted the Cougars' way.
Key in getting things swinging BYU's direction was the serving of freshman Gabi Garcia Fernandez, who took the service line after his team cut the Bruins' lead to 13-11 in the second set. Four serves later, and the Cougars were suddenly up 15-13, with the always raucous Smith Fieldhouse crowd loud and players clearly enthused.
“That kid is capable for doing unbelievable things. We’re lucky to have him,” said BYU senior Price Jarman of Fernandez, who finished with 12 kills and two service aces.
“I think we finally put some pressure on them serving,” Olmstead added of the momentum shift. “And I think we just started to get more touches. We just found our rhythm more. I think in the first set we were trying too hard to go after some specific targets, and we didn’t need to do that.”
After taking the second set 25-21 the Cougars put forth their best play in the third set — dominating the course of play after falling down 3-0 early. They then rallied to take back the lead at 8-7 and then rode the wave of momentum provided by both the fans and the players themselves into taking the set going away.
“We have a really deep trust in one another,” Jarman said. “Maybe the crowd doesn’t see it, when we’re getting it handed to us, like we did in that first set. We come together and look into one another’s eyes, and no one’s afraid. There’s just a deep level of trust.”
The Bruins fought throughout the fourth, and closed to within 22-20 late before the Cougars, fittingly led by Sander, ended things on a high note, securing another MPSF championship in the process.
Sander took tournament MVP honors, with setter Leo Durkin and Fernandez both receiving All-Tournament team honors.
The players made certain to round the crowd that stuck around as the players received their awards, with Sander leading the way. For the standout senior, who has enjoyed many a stellar moment throughout his BYU career, Saturday's win was perhaps a perfect way to top it off.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to go out another way,” Sander said.
As mentioned, BYU secures an automatic berth in the eight-team NCAA tournament with the win. The team will learn of its draw on Sunday, and look to receive a first-round bye by virtue of winning its conference tournament.