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With the chance to take a step forward in the race for the postseason home-court advantage, the BYU men's volleyball team cannot afford another stumble like the one it had to close out a two-match series at Long Beach State last weekend.
The loss against a team they should have defeated dropped the Cougars a game behind UC Irvine in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation standings. Although BYU has already clinched a spot in the MPSF Tournament quarterfinals, a first-place finish and the right to host the tournament would be an important step toward advancing to the NCAA Tournament and its first national championship since 2004.
BYU (18-5, 14-4) must win two important home matches against Cal State Northridge (10-13, 6-10) on Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m. in the Smith Fieldhouse.
Irvine, 14-3 in MPSF play, hosts lowly Santa Barbara (3-13). UCLA (13-3), USC (12-4) and Stanford (11-4) have also earned spots in the league tournament.
Right now, the Cougars are rooting for Santa Barbara.
"Absolutely," said BYU coach Chris McGown, who is actually more concerned with honing his team's mental side of volleyball more than the physical part of the sport.
"We've played phenomenally at times," McGown said. "One thing we haven't been as good at is maintaining our focus every single match. We need great focus, great energy and enthusiasm."
One need only look at Saturday's match against Long Beach State (6-10) as an example of BYU's wandering focus. A day after a three-game sweep, the Cougars dropped a five-set match, including a 20-18 final game score.
BYU's top attacker, Taylor Sander, tied his season high with 25 kills, while Robb Stowell, Russ Lavaja, Josue Rivera and Futi Tavana combined for 45 kills.
Tavana is now the all-time BYU blocks and assist leader in the rally scoring era. Joe Kauliakamoa leads the squad with 681 assists.
So, McGown knows the talent is in place for a serious run. The only problem is the dwindling schedule.
After this weekend, BYU closes its conference schedule with a pair of matches at UCLA. The Cougars close out the regular season with a pair of home matches against perennial power Penn State on April 13 and 14.
McGown also knows that Northridge is a dangerous team, one playing for a spot in the MPSF Tournament. Three slots are still open.
"We can lose to them if we don't play well," he said. "Our team has big expectations. There has never been any discussion or sense that we're interested in anything but winning every match and finishing first and hosting the tournament."