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Provo • Don't tell BYU libero Jaylen Reyes that the Cougar men's volleyball team is supposed to be rebuilding this year with the loss of perhaps the greatest player in program history, Taylor Sander.
"Our goal hasn't changed," Reyes said Tuesday as the Cougars continued preparations for this weekend's homestand against UC San Diego at the Smith Fieldhouse. "Even though we lost some great players, we still feel like we have some great players here, and the goal is still to win a national championship."
The Cougars got relatively close last year, winning the MPSF regular-season and conference-tournament titles and making it to the NCAA tournament's Final Four before being ousted by Stanford. But with the 2014 AVCA Player of the Year, Sander, and all-conference middle blocker Devin Young graduating, prospects aren't as good this year in Provo.
Still, No. 7 BYU is off to a 4-2 start, including 3-1 in league play, and gaining confidence with every match, Reyes said.
"I think we are in a really good spot," said the senior from Honolulu. "We are making the right steps in the right direction to where we want to be at the end of the year."
Picked to finish sixth in the MPSF and the nation, the Cougars dropped their opener 3-1 to defending national champion Loyola at a tournament at Stanford, but then won three straight, beating No. 9 Lewis 3-2 and downing No. 4 UCLA on back-to-back nights in Provo, 3-0 and 3-1. They split a pair at UC-Santa Barbara last weekend, falling 3-0 before rebounding with a hard-fought 3-2 win.
They've found some emerging stars along the way, as sophomores Kiril Meretev (Saedinenie, Bulgaria) and Jake Langlois (San Jose, California) shined from their outside hitter positions.
Opposite hitters Tim Dobbert and Phil Fuchs, setters Robbie Sutton and Tyler Heap, middle blocker Michael Hatch and Reyes, the defensive specialist, have also been key contributors. The Cougars are waiting on the return of 2014 starter Josue Rivera, the crowd favorite from Puerto Rico who has been slowed by a shoulder injury.
"A lot of guys have been here two or three years now, and we are a really close-knit team," Reyes said. "I think we are doing really well in terms of chemistry. In the fall, coaches stressed that, wanted us to get to know each other better, and I think we are doing well in that department."
Reyes said it is the tallest team he's been a part of in his four years at BYU, with Langlois and Dobbert standing at 6-foot-10, Hatch at 6-8, improving middle blocker Joe Grosh at 6-7 and Meretev at 6-6.
And there's another Sander in the fold, as Taylor's brother, freshman Brenden Sander, has joined the team from Huntington Beach, California.
"Our defense, I would say, is our strong suit," Reyes said. "If we can serve the ball and pass the ball, we are going to be a very good team this year."
BYU men's volleyball update
• Cougars have started the season 4-2 with two wins over No. 4 UCLA and wins over No. 9 Lewis and No. 8 UCSB.
• Ranked No. 7 in the country, the Cougars host UC San Diego on Friday and Saturday at Smith Fieldhouse.
• Having lost standouts Taylor Sander and Devin Young to graduation, rebuilding BYU is picked to finish sixth in the MPSF this season.