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No doughnut for Cougars

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PROVO — The revolving-door rotation at middle blocker for the third-ranked BYU men's volleyball team is not so much by design as it is by desperation.

And lucky for coach Tom Peterson, ongoing disruptions in the center of the Cougars' formation has yet to resemble a doughnut — a gaping hole in the middle.

Consider: Peterson's two experienced, all-conference middle blockers — Mike Burke and Chris Gorny — start 2004 sidelined with serious injuries. Relying on outsides and opposites to carry the attack, Peterson makes do with inexperienced reserves before welcoming newcomer Victor Batista. He then gets Gorny back a month into the season and Burke two months in — but not until after Gorny is gone again with a severe ankle sprain.

Acknowledging "it hardly ever happens by committee," Peterson said BYU is benefiting from a deep roster.

"If you take two people out like that, it's very difficult" he added of Burke and Gorny, "so we're doing pretty well."

Well indeed, as the Cougars (11-3) are riding a 10-match winning streak, a No. 3 national ranking and top spot in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation standings, just ahead of No. 1 UCLA and No. 2 Hawaii. BYU plays host to No. No. 6 UC Santa Barbara (10-6) in 7 p.m. matches Friday and Saturday at the Smith Fieldhouse.

Going into the season, Peterson possessed a pair of all-MPSF middle blockers in Gorny (honored in 2002) and Burke (2003), and he planned on moving Gorny to the outside as part of his lineup overhaul.

Then as suddenly as he had two talented middles, Peterson found he had none, with Gorny suffering a labrum-tear injury of his hitting side and Burke tearing his hitting-side pectoral muscle cleanly off the bone while bench-pressing 365 pounds.

The Cougars were forced to go with the inexperienced trio of David Hyte, Cory Carpenter and Aaron Ferre. Hyte, a 6-foot-8 senior from Las Vegas, played only 32 games with BYU last season, while Carpenter, a 6-7 senior from Alpine, and Ferre, a 6-8 freshman from Sandy, were both NCAA novices.

Initially, BYU relied on the sides, with Fernando Pessoa, Jon Alleman and Joe Hillman carrying much of the load in a 1-3 start of the season. But middle contributions were soon to come.

Batista, a 6-6 freshman from the Dominican Republic first pegged as an outside hitter, became eligible at the start of the semester. "We tried him at the middle, and all of a sudden, it just clicked," said Peterson of the crowd-pleasing newcomer who met the rigorous school, conference and NCAA eligibility requirements for foreign athletes. "We were lucky to get him — it was that close."

For his Jan. 17 debut against No. 5 Cal State Northridge, Batista logged six kills in seven attempts for a .857 hitting percentage.

Two weeks later, a healthy Gorny made his first 2004 appearance during the Jan. 28-29 trip to No. 2 Long Beach State. "He had practiced only one or two days, and we were down a game, so I put him in," Peterson said. "We won that match and the next match as well."

The first night, the 6-6 senior from Palmdale, Calif., posted 12 kills on 17 attempts for a .588 percentage, with 11 kills and .409 percentage on the second night to accompany Batista's 18 kills and .417 hitting. The Cougars now boasted Gorny's experience paired with Batista's athleticism.

BYU next claimed a pair of three-game home sweeps against both No. 12 Pacific and No. 11 Stanford, but Gorny went down in Feb. 20 match against Stanford with an awkward high ankle sprain that is expected to sideline him for several weeks.

But what followed were two more stellar individual performances in a pair of four-game victories at No. 9 UC Irvine last weekend. Friday night, Ferre connected on 10 of 11 kill attempts for a .909 percentage. Then on Saturday night, Burke — a 6-8 junior from Salt Lake City — debuted with 15 kills in 19 attempts for a .737 percentage and six blocks.

"It's hard to say, 'We'll replace you, Chris,' or 'We'll replace you, Mike,' " said Peterson, calling Gorny one of the better position players in the conference with a vertical jump of 40-plus inches and Burke as one of the best middle blockers in the nation.

E-mail: taylor@desnews.com