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BYU men's volleyball: Sander rises to top form for yet another run at an NCAA title

PROVO — A single victory during the course of a lengthy men's volleyball season usually isn't something to hang your hat on, particularly when that win comes in mid-January. But when it comes against two-time defending champion Ohio State on its home court, you can forgive BYU players for taking a bit more satisfaction than otherwise.

Just ask BYU senior Brenden Sander, who battled with his team to within a match of winning an NCAA title two years in a row, only to have the Buckeyes dash their dreams in the championship match. So when the Cougars took a five-set thriller over Ohio State in Columbus last Saturday, it absolutely gave them a boost of confidence.

“It was really good. We were definitely hungry to get them and I think we showed we have the keys to beat a team like that, even though it’s still really early in the season,” Sander said. “We wanted it, not just because of what happened the last two seasons, but because we needed it after taking a loss to Loyola the first game of the year.”

The No. 5-ranked Cougars (3-1) are without some players who contributed heavily the last couple of seasons, leading some to believe 2018 might be a rebuilding year.

But rebuilding isn't something a team like BYU does. The win over No. 1 Ohio State demonstrates the Cougars are capable of competing with the best again this year.

“I knew we’d be good again, even with the loss of some really great players,” Sander said. “These younger guys have been ready to compete from day one, and that’s something a lot of guys don’t truly develop until you’re a junior or even a senior. So it’s been impressive watching some of the younger guys.”

Particularly impressive has been the play of freshman Gabi Garcia Fernandez, who was named the AVCA Player of the Week after his impressive outings against Ball State and Ohio State.

“He’s unreal and I love playing with him,” Sander said of the 6-foot-7 Puerto Rico native. “I’m glad I get one year playing with him so we can share the hitting load from both pin positions. I remember the first practice, and you could tell immediately with his swagger. You could tell with just how he carried himself, even before we really started practicing that he’s legit and probably as good as any freshman we’ve had come in during my time in the program.”

Sander wasn't too bad himself when beginning his BYU career in 2015. He really exploded during his sophomore season, playing a key role in BYU's run to the national championship match in 2016.

The 6-foot-4 Huntington Beach, California, product came to Provo a year after his older brother, Taylor Sander, finished his Cougar career. Taylor was one of the best to ever pass through the BYU program, and already Brenden is drawing comparisons.

“It’s pretty obvious that he’s been a tremendous help for me over the years,” Brenden said of his older brother. “He’s paved the way for me and has shown me how it’s done, so I don’t mind the comparison at all. He was obviously a great player. He is a great player, so being compared with him is an honor.”

The brothers spent time during the offseason competing on the U.S. national team, which Brenden used to improve his overall play. He also worked on his endurance after knee issues hampered him during his junior season.

“The biggest thing for me is I’m a lot more physical than last year,” Brenden said. “Getting in the weight room and working on my technique has really helped with that. It comes back every once in a while, but I feel a ton better than last year.”

The ultimate feeling for Brenden may come should he go out with a national championship, an accomplishment Taylor fell just short of during his stellar college career.

“It would mean the world to me. It’s what every player dreams of,” Brenden said. “I’ve been there two years in a row, and it’s so hard getting there, knowing all the work it takes, and then just to come up short. It’s really tough. But we believe we’re putting in the work to get there again and to hopefully come away with a different result, if we’re fortunate enough to get there again.”