CHICAGO — Stanford coach John Kosty said it simply:
“Tomorrow’s match, all the cards are already on the table. We all know what everybody’s going to do. It’s who can perform better.”
In their previous three meetings this season, it’s been BYU that has performed better.
But not by much, which is why Thursday night’s national semifinal at the NCAA championships has all the earmarks of being an epic match between two MPSF rivals.
And then there’s the conversation piece of the tournament, which is how hard must it be to beat a team four times?
BYU coach Chris McGown looked at it a different way.
“The counterpoint to that is that’s their experience, playing BYU and us playing really well,” McGown said. “And that’s hopefully what they remember.”
McGown, whose team lost in last year’s title match to UC Irvine, laughed.
“Hopefully that’s what’s in the backs of their minds, that we played really well against them and BYU played great and BYU answered and in the tough moments BYU was the team that was able to turn some things.”
Oh, it’s not in the back of their minds.
“We have to attack them the same way we’ve been attacking them,” Stanford setter James Shaw said.
“We’ve had our opportunities and haven’t capitalized on them and this time around we will.”
“I think we understand the gravity of the situation,” said the 6-foot-8 sophomore, one of the game’s taller setters who averages .62 blocks per set. “We’ve got a bunch of senior leaders who want this to be their legacy and the rest of the team understands that and I think we all recognize it as well.”
One of those seniors, Brian Cook, a 6’5” outside who happens to be close friends with BYU senior star Taylor Sander through their national-team experiences, said he’s excited.
“I know BYU is a team we can beat,” he said. “We’ve played them three times and had three close matches and even though the last one was in three it was a close match.
“I’m just excited for the fourth opportunity. I think it’s hard to beat a team four times in one season, so they’ve got a lot cut out for them, and I think we’re in a good spot.”
The first meeting was Jan. 24. BYU won in Provo, 3-1, as Stanford lost its third match in a row to fall to 3-3 overall and 0-3 in the MPSF. Sander had 18 kills in a 25-20, 19-25, 25-23, 25-21 Cougars victory.
In the regular-season rematch at Stanford, BYU came away with a five-set victory (25-22, 20-25, 25-21, 20-25, 15-7) as Sander went nuts with 27 kills. McGown called it “a crazy high-level match.”
And then last Saturday, in the MPSF title match in Provo, once again Sander led the way, this time with 15 kills and two aces in a 25-23, 25-22, 25-22 BYU victory that clinched an automatic NCAA bid for the Cougars. Stanford got an at-large bid and advanced by beating Erskine in an easy three sets here Tuesday night.
“We always talk about it all the time, serving-passing, and I don’t think we had the most effective match at their place,” Kosty said. “That’s almost it, they out-served us and did a better job passing. On Thursday whoever does that better is going to win the match.”
Loyola coach Shane Davis, whose team plays in the other semifinal, agreed. And the fourth time situation wasn’t lost on him.
“In their conference final Stanford was just OK in their serving game and they’ve been lights out serving this entire year,” Davis offered. “So tomorrow night if Stanford’s serving is on it’s going to pose some problems for BYU. I think it’s a good opportunity for Stanford to win and I’m kind of happy that we’re not playing Lewis a fourth time [which it would have faced had Penn State not ousted Lewis in the play-in match Tuesday].
“I’m sure BYU is not looking forward to playing Stanford for the fourth time and trying to get that fourth victory.”
Stanford is 23-8. BYU is 21-8. Many of the players on both teams know each other from high school, club ball, and youth national teams.
“In men’s volleyball there are no surprises,” Kosty said. “There are no tweaks you can do. Taylor Sander can hit anywhere on the court he wants to. The scouting reports pretty much stay the same against both teams. Little minor adjustments here and there, move a foot in on the block, but for the most part it’s who’s going to serve the ball better and who’s going to control their opponent’s serve better.”
BYU made it to last year’s title match with a fantastic freshman right side in Ben Patch, who left this year for his Mormon mission trip. Three players filled in, but right now the job belongs to 6’10” German freshman Tim Dobbert. You could argue that McGown has done a masterful job of regrouping his team and getting the Cougars this far this season.
“More than anything at the start of the year we said that we’ve got an opportunity to work hard every day and try to get better every day and we’ve got the personnel that could conceivably be back in the national-championship match,” McGown said. “But a lot of things have to go our way and we’ve got to put a lot of work in between now and then and I think those things have happened. Things have gone our way and guys stepped up.”
Of course having Sander helps. He’s got 478 kills, has hit .336 this season, and is second on the team in digs with 176.
“Last year was a bummer. You work so hard all year and to come up a couple points short in each set was frustrating,” Sander said. “We’ve really learned from that and we’ve got some experience to come into this tournament and we’re excited to play as seniors.”
“We definitely learned from that and it’s driven us all year,” BYU senior middle blocker Devin Young said.
Stanford, which won it all in 1997, also won the NCAA crown in 2010. BYU won it all in 1999, 2001, and 2004.
In the other semifinal, host Loyola, ranked No. 2 this week just three points behind BYU in the AVCA poll, takes on Penn State, which advanced by beating Lewis on Tuesday.
“I think it’s a great matchup,” Kosty said. “It’s a great final four. All four teams have the ability to win. I’ll be really surprised if both matches don’t go the duration. It’s just going to be a dogfight to get into the finals."