PROVO — The No. 3 BYU men's volleyball team is beginning to look like the team that took the top spot early in the season, defeating UC-Santa Barbara three sets to one (28-30, 25-17, 25-16, 25-23) Friday.
After dropping the first set the Cougars dominated the match — rarely trailing while showing well in all aspects, from team digs to total team blocks.
"I think we had a great team effort tonight," said senior Rob Stowell. "We played together well and we're improving in a lot of areas. We still have a long ways to go, but we're getting there."
About the only thing the Cougars didn't do well was get off to a good start. So far this season BYU has tended to start slow. BYU led for most of the first set — building a 17-12 lead and seemingly on its way to an easy victory before letting the Gauchos come back.
"That's something that we definitely have to fix," said Stowell. "We're a team that seems to like to test the waters too much of the time and it can come back and bite you. Fortunately we were able to fix a lot of things and come back and win, but that's something we certainly have to work on."
The Cougars were rarely threatened during the second and third sets — building big leads early and cruising to easy wins. They did allow a late run to Santa Barbara before separating to win the match.
Stowell, who led BYU with 17 kills, scored the match-winner with a well-placed kill just inside the out-of-bounds line. "We built some good momentum and it was fun — it's fun when we're working good together like we were tonight," said Stowell.
It's been a bit of a rough go for the Cougars since losing star player Taylor Sander. After vaulting to the top spot in the national rankings, they dropped two straight matches to Stanford at home immediately following Sander breaking his hand.
Since that time they've been able to regain a lot of team chemistry. Chemistry is important in all sports, but it's especially so in volleyball, where timing is paramount.
"When you lose a player like Taylor there is a huge void and you can't replace him — no one can replace what he brings," said Stowell. "Guys have had to redefine their roles and we've had to learn how to work without him and fortunately we're getting there. We still have a long ways to go, but we've been playing well and we had a good team effort tonight."
The good news is that Sander's cast is off and he's reportedly started to hit balls during practice. There is a chance he could return to the team as early as next weekend when BYU takes on Pepperdine at home.