PROVO — It’s hard to imagine any specific improvements BYU volleyball star Taylor Sander could have make to his overall game coming off of a breakthrough 2011-12 season. One specific improvement he focused on making, however, paid huge dividends for himself, but more importantly, for his team as it enters the postseason in hopes of winning a national championship.
The consensus All-American made a concerted effort this past offseason to become something that doesn’t come all that easy for him — a vocal leader. Vocal leadership can often be overstated and subsequently overrated, but BYU coaches and players insist that Sander’s strides in this area have paid dividends.
“He’s obviously our best player, but he’s become our best leader,” said senior setter Ryan Boyce. “Everyone looks up to him on the team, and he’s a great leader to have. The sense of unity of this team is the biggest difference between this year‘s team and last year‘s, and Taylor has been a big part of that.”
Coach Chris McGown believes that better leadership has provided better team unity and subsequent composure during tight situations. BYU has fought its way through numerous tight situations this season highlighted by a match back on March 1 against then No. 1-ranked UC Irvine on the road.
Down two sets to none, the Cougars maintained their composure, rallied, and came back to win the match. The win earned them the No. 1-ranking nationally, which they still have entering the postseason.
It was the sort of win BYU didn't get last season.
“The guys stayed composed, which is a quality I don’t know if we had last year,” McGown said. “We’d get a bit tense and crazy when we’d get behind (last year) as opposed to staying with every point and understanding that, yeah, we can do this.”
“We’ve just been more confident in each other and knowing that everyone on the team is focused on the same goal,” Sander added. “In the past, I don’t know if we had enough confidence to come back from tough situations, but I think we’ve proven to be able to this year, and that’s probably the biggest difference this year.”
Sander has headed the unity initiative, taking notes from many of the top players on the USA national team over the summer.
“You watch those guys a lot and being around them and seeing how they approached the game is something I really learned a lot from,” Sander said. “I’ve definitely tried to emulate a lot of the leadership qualities each of them showed me because our team deserves great leadership — at least better leadership than I showed in my first two years.”
Although being a vocal leader hasn’t come easy for the laid-back junior star from Huntington Beach, Calif., he’s seen the dividends. Content to just do his part during practices and team meetings in the past, Sander has gone above and beyond what McGown requires of his players.
“Taylor put up better numbers last year, but he’s been doing things for us in ways that don’t always show up on the state sheet,” McGown said. “He’s early to practice every day … I think he’s worked harder in practice. There have been times when I‘ve offered to have him sit out of practice … but he‘s said he wants to be out there and for the guys to see (him) work hard and to see (him) being an example and that‘s a position he‘s never even thought to take in the past.”
Sander’s efforts, among other factors, helped BYU secure the MPSF regular season title and the ever-important home court advantage throughout the postseason conference tournament. The Cougars square off against No. 8-seeded Hawaii this Saturday at the Smith Fieldhouse.
“We just have to remain focused and not to take Hawaii, or anyone else, lightly,” Sander said. “Yes, we’re in a great position, but we just need to understand that we’re a long way from our ultimate goal and remember to do the things that got us here in the first place.”