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BYU men’s volleyball: Cougars hope to build off last year’s success, disappointment

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PROVO — Losses are always tough to take, but can serve as great learning tools and motivation in achieving the ultimate goal.

Such is the mindset of the BYU men’s volleyball team as it prepares for another season in the typically tough Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, beginning this weekend with home matches against Cal State Northridge (Friday) and No. 1-ranked Long Beach (Saturday) at the Smith Fieldhouse.

The Cougars began the season last week with back-to-back nonconference losses to No. 7 Loyola and No. 10 Lewis, but hope to turn it around this weekend.

"I really think, and we talk about it a lot, that you learn more from your losses than your wins," said BYU coach Chris McGown. "You never want to lose, obviously, but I think we learned some things last weekend and we're working hard to improve those things."

Early-season nonconference losses aren't the toughest pills to swallow for most teams, considering they have the rest of the season to look forward to.

Losing in the NCAA championship match, however, takes some time to digest.

BYU found itself on the losing end of last year's NCAA title — losing in straight sets to Cal State Irvine. The defeat certainly didn't go down easy for the team, and maybe particularly so for McGown, who readily admits to that fact.

"I seriously didn't sleep right for two to three months after that game," McGown said. "It was a such a magical season for us up to that point and yeah, it was dang tough on me. Tough on the players because they had worked so hard and everything had gone so right for us. It was just tough — real tough."

Much like last week's defeats, the team is using last season's championship game loss to improve.

"It helps us in understanding what it takes to get there and hopefully get there and come away with a different outcome," said consensus All-American Taylor Sander. "I think we understand more than we have before entering this year about what it takes and I think that is going to help us."

Mental notes aside, the return of Sander for his senior season is the biggest benefit for the team in general entering the thick of the 2014 season.

The 6-foot-4 Huntington Beach, Calif., native has accomplished almost everything imaginable on a personal level since entering the program in 2011. All-American honors, player of the year honors, being named to the U.S. national team — you name the honor, and Sander has likely accomplished it.

"Taylor is a unique talent — a type of once-in-a-generation kind of player. He's that good," McGown said. "He's so incredibly talented, but what makes him so good is his work ethic and constant desire to get better."

Sander joins with notable contributors from last season — including outside hitter Josue Rivera, setter Tyler Heap and libero Jaylen Reyes — as the leaders of this year's team. Notable losses include the graduation of standouts Russ Lavaja and Ryan Boyce, on top of the loss of star freshman Ben Patch, who is serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"It's not just the talent you lose, but the energy," says McGown. "All those guys brought some needed personality and excitement and that's tough to replace — maybe even more so than their talent."

McGown will look to a host of newcomers — including two players directly from Europe — to supplement last year's losses. Six-foot-10 freshman Tim Dobbert (Germany) enters the program along with the 6-foot-8 Kiril Meretev (Bulgaria) in hopes of providing the type of big impact BYU often receives from first-year players.

"Both guys are really talented, but it's going to take some time until we understand what type of impact each can make," McGown said. "You can't expect everyone to have the impact Ben or certainly Taylor had their first years, but you just hope for the best."

As always, expectations for the team run high. Most expect the Cougars to compete for a national championship again, but doing so won't be easy considering the level of talent within the MPSF.

"The conference is always tough, but I think it's probably going to be more balanced and competitive this year than it's every been," McGown said. "I think there's about six teams that you could place even odds on to win the conference championship. Every game is going to be a dogfight and we'll have to earn it.

"Hopefully we can learn from what we did last year, while continually improving with every game, every week, and get back to that championship game — and when we get there come away with a different outcome."

Email: bgurney@desnews.com

Twitter: @BrandonCGurney