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Provo • Having lost only one starter from a team that reached the NCAA Tournament championship match last season, BYU is approaching the 2017 season with one goal: A national championship.
Those lofty expectations took a minor hit last weekend when the Cougars, No. 1 in the preseason MPSF poll and No. 3 in the AVCA poll, split a pair of road matches in Illinois, but nobody is panicking, assistant coach Luka Slabe said Tuesday after practice. Head coach Shawn Olmstead was out of town on a recruiting trip.
BYU downed No. 6 Lewis 3-0 on Friday before falling 3-1 to No. 11 Loyola (Chicago), losing to the Ramblers 25-20, 25-22, 22-25 and 31-33.
"It's not a pleasant trip," Slabe said. "You play really good teams, and you don't know exactly what you have. Nothing has changed. We are not panicking."
The Cougars (1-1) fell to No. 4 in Monday's AVCA poll and will host another Illinois school, McKendree, on Thursday at Smith Fieldhouse in their home opener. They begin the MPSF season on Jan. 19 at Cal State Northridge.
There's a sense of urgency this season because junior Ben Patch, an AVCA First Team All-American last season, has said this will probably be his last season in Provo.
The 6-foot-9 product of Provo High, who had 25 kills against Loyola-Chicago and 17 kills against Lewis, will likely turn professional and focus his energy on making the U.S. National Team after the 2017 season. Patch, the AVCA Newcomer of the Year in 2013 before a church mission to Columbus, Ohio, would like nothing more than to return to that city in May for the Final Four, which will be hosted by defending champion Ohio State.
"This is a long season and we're just getting going," Olmstead said last week. "We have to play a lot of great teams and we have to go through ups and downs, like every team does every season. We have to be smart in our approach to it."
Personnel-wise, Olmstead's biggest task will be to replace middle blocker Michael Hatch, an All-MPSF performer in 2016. On the court, Slabe said a lot of attention in the offseason was paid to the Cougars' serve and receive games.
"I think our serving improved a lot," Slabe said.
In the middle, junior Price Jarman is solid, having averaged 1.31 blocks per set last season, while 6-7 senior Joseph Grosh and Finish Senior National Team member Miki Jauhiainen, a 6-7 freshman, will vie for playing time.
The Cougars looked set at libero with the return of junior Erik Sikes, but he recently had a surgical procedure on the same knee that required ACL surgery before the 2016 season and didn't play last weekend. Freshman Mitchel Worthington stepped in and played well at the key defensive position in Illinois.
Slabe said Sikes is close to getting clearance from doctors to return to practice.
Along with the dynamic Patch, BYU returns two other outstanding pin hitters in 6-10 senior Jake Langlois, an opposite hitter, and 6-4 junior Brenden Sander, brother of Rio Olympian Taylor Sander. However, Brenden Sander "has been struggling with a little bit of a knee problem," Slabe said, and did not practice Tuesday.
The loss to Ohio State in the NCAA title match last season, in which the Cougars were overwhelmed by the Buckeyes' service game, was cause for concern, and the Cougars spent time working on that the past few months.
Junior Tim Dobbert, a 6-10 opposite hitter from Germany, and 6-8 senior outside hitter Kiri Meretev, from Bulgaria, add more depth at the net.
Las Vegas product Leo Durkin, a junior, emerged as a valuable setter last year and earned honorable mention All-America accolades after averaging 10.54 assists per set. He will be backed up by a pair of freshmen, Andrew Lincoln and Will Stanley.
Inside BYU volleyball
Key loss • Middle blocker Michael Hatch
Key returners • Opposite hitter Ben Patch, outside hitter Brenden Sander, outside hitter Jake Langlois, middle blocker Price Jarman, middle blocker Joseph Grosh, setter Leo Durkin, libero Erik Sikes
Key newcomers • Libero Michael Worthington, setter Andrew Lincoln, middle blocker Miki Jauhiainen, outside hitter Storm Fa'agata-Tufuga
BYU vs. McKendree
P At Smith Fieldhouse, Provo
7 p.m. Thursday