RIO DE JANEIRO — Taylor Sander started the Olympics looking lost and overwhelmed.
It took a showdown with the top-ranked host country in a must-win match to bring out his best, and now the former BYU All-American is leading the U.S. team with confidence and purpose.
“We changed our mindset since Brazil,” Sander said after the U.S. earned its first sweep of the tournament — a 25-23, 25-11, 25-19 victory over Mexico — Monday morning at Maracanazinho Arena. “We feel good. We’re more confident.” So confident that the team that started the Olympics 0-2 will enjoy “half a day off.” But don’t get nervous that the team is somehow slipping into comfort or complacency.
“I still don’t think we can exhale,” he said smiling. “I don’t know what position we’re in. I just knew we had to win. We’re happy with that.”
Team USA secured a spot in Wednesday’s quarterfinal, but it had to wait until all the matches were played to know which team it would face.
U.S. head coach John Speraw said the team has talked a lot about learning from mistakes in hopes of not repeating them. “The biggest challenge of this volleyball match was having such emotional matches the previous two, and being able to summon those emotional reserves and come out and bring that again because I think that it’s required in every Olympic volleyball match,” Speraw said. “They’re trying really hard to execute those lessons.”
Mexico came out swinging, but the U.S. team answered the challenge so well that some of the reserves got time on the court. One of those, Murphy Troy, scored his first points in the match and ended up leading the team in kills with 10. Sander added eight kills, while team captain David Lee finished with seven kills on eight attempts.
Sander led the team with three blocks, while Murphy and Lee each had two. Maxwell Holt led the team in aces with five, while Lee had two and Sander had one.
Mexico hadn’t qualified for the Olympic Games in men’s volleyball in 48 years, and it left winning only one set — which came in its lost to Brazil.
Sander said it was an especially rewarding win to see some of the reserves play in the match.
“It matters a lot,” he said. “Those guys work hard every day, and they push us. I’m grateful for those guys on the team. And all of them are capable of being out there, and it’s nice to play with them and see the fire they bring.”
Troy said he was thrilled to see significant time Monday.
“It’s the Olympic Games,” he said. “It’s just an honor to be out on the court, no matter who we’re playing. Every match is super exciting. This was a huge one, a must win to get ourselves into the quarterfinals. So I’m super excited to be a part of it.”
Speraw said getting as many guys in the game as possible is helpful in a lot of ways. It’s also difficult to do, even in a sweep, especially in light of the situation the U.S. team faced in this tournament.
“I think it matters a lot,” he said. “It’s good for the team. They deserve it. It’s hard to make changes in the Olympic Games, even when you’re up. It always changes momentum, even just a little bit, so I was a little conservative. But those guys are great volleyball players, great teammates, so I’m happy to see them get out there and play.” Sander said it was also nice to win without dropping a set.
“We won in three,” he laughed. “I don’t think we ever do that. Our coaches really emphasized that. We need to close out a match.”
As for whether or not it was helpful to have the pressure of a 0-2 start, he said, "Well, we know what not to do. … That experience of losing those first two matches helped us to grow."