Taylor Sander, BYU
Taylor Sander attended high school in Norco, Calif.*, a town in Southern California, the training ground of many a pro beach volleyball player, and he’s played his share of matches in the sand, but right now it’s on the parquet court that the 6'4" outside hitter shines as, in Volleyball’s opinion, the top men’s college player in the country.
Sander has garnered All-American honors each of his three seasons with BYU, and has played with the junior national team since his junior year of high school. Last year, his international experience received a boost when he competed with the men’s national team at the 2012 Pan American Cup and was named MVP of the tournament. He’s also in the running for the 2016 Olympic roster.
Despite not winning the NCAA national championship title this May after roaring into the final match as part of the No.1 ranked team, Sander had an excellent season. He led the Cougars in kills (461), aces (42), and digs (178), and helped his team finish their season 26-5. He even holds BYU’s rally-scoring era record for career aces (127) with a year left in his college career. With that number, he’s leading the runner up Ivan Perez by 36 aces, and is set to solidify a record that will likely stand for many years after he graduates next spring.
Sander’s Cougars will compete again next year, losing only two senior starters in Ryan Boyce and Russell Lavaja, as well as freshman Ben Patch to a two-year mission, and we’ll see what a summer’s training with the national team can do for the already incredibly athletic and passionate Sander.
Ben Patch, BYU
Ben Patch didn’t play high school volleyball. In fact, he probably didn’t even look like he had much potential when he started at Provo High School as a 5'9" freshman. But he loved the sport. So much so that he didn’t let the fact that Utah high schools don’t offer volleyball for boys stop him from getting his fix. He began practicing with the girls’ team, and by his senior year was contributing his talents to the varsity team as an assistant coach. That summer, he joined the junior national team for the first time where he was named MVP of the NORCECA Men’s Junior Continental Championship.
Now standing 6'8" and one of the biggest hitters in the national championship match, BYU’s Ben Patch could be the greatest freshman to play the game. Certainly, the 18-year-old right side hitter made a difference for the Cougars this season, contributing 18 kills to their MPSF championship win over Long Beach State and 12 kills and five block assists in the national semifinal match against Penn State. He also holds BYU’s rally-scoring era record for kills in a match, previously held by Mike Wall, with the 35 he put down against UC Irvine in their meeting on March 1. His raw size and jumping ability is shocking to see. Standing 6'8" with a 41-inch vertical, Patch hits over almost all the blocks he faces.
For many players, especially someone like Patch who is relatively inexperienced compared to some of the SoCal guys who start playing on the beach as elementary school students, a single off-season can mean huge improvements and increased maturity in game IQ. But we’ll have to wait until at least the summer of 2015 to see Patch bring his talents back to BYU. Later this year, after spending some time training with the junior national team, Patch will embark on a two-year Mormon mission.
“The lessons that you learn out on a mission translate into your game when you come back,” said Patch.
For our part, we can’t wait to see 20-year-old Patch play when he returns. Maybe he’ll continue his rate of growth and be nearly seven feet tall by then.
>>See the full list of Volleyball's 2013 All-Americans
David Kniffin, UC Irvine
To express surprise at David Kniffin’s success in his first year as the head coach of the UC Irvine men’s volleyball team would be to disregard his previous accomplishments.
Kniffin’s volleyball résumé has been in the works since starting as a setter for UCI in 2002 and 2003. Kniffin also spent five years as an assistant with the program from 2007 to 2011. In that time frame, UCI won two national championships (2007 and 2009), and the AVCA named Kniffin the 2010 Division I-II Assistant Coach of the Year. Not to mention the season he spent as Kevin Hambly’s assistant coach with the University of Illinois women’s volleyball team. That season, Hambly and Kniffin led the Fighting Illini to the program’s first-ever national championship match appearance.
So when Kniffin showed up in the men’s national championship match with his UCI team, after taking over for John Speraw, the current head coach of the men’s national team and the UCLA men’s team, it would have been reductive to call him a first-year coach; he had been building his relationship with many of the guys on the court since he recruited them as high school players.
Kniffin, who was described by UCI right side hitter Zack La Cavera in an interview with Volleyball magazine earlier this year as “a pretty mellow guy [who] doesn’t really get fired up,” began his stint as head coach at UCI by taking the team on a nine-day trip to Mar del Plata, Argentina, for the World Challenge Cup, a trip the team took for the first time in 2008 before winning the national championship in 2009.
Collin Mehring, a walk-on middle hitter who blossomed on said South American adventure and contributed seven kills and only one error to hit .600 in the national championship match on May 4, said of Kniffin in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “He’s special.”
*This article originally stated in error that Taylor Sander attended high school in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Originally published in July 2013