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Provo • They've been gone, but they are far too good this season to have been forgotten.
That sums up the plight of the BYU men's volleyball team, which plays in the Smith Fieldhouse this weekend for the first time in more than a month.
The No. 2-ranked Cougars (10-1 in MPSF play, 10-3 overall) play host to No. 7 USC on Friday night and No. 4 Pepperdine on Saturday night. Both matches begin at 7 p.m. and both will be televised by BYUtv.
The Cougars could be rusty, because they haven't played a match since beating No. 8 Stanford 3-2 in Palo Alto back on Feb. 15. But they sit atop the MPSF standings, one game ahead of 9-2 UCLA and two ahead of 8-3 Pepperdine, which knocked them off 3-2 in late January in Malibu, Calif.
"There might be some rust in the very beginning," BYU libero Jaylen Reyes said Wednesday. "But we've gotten used to it, and coaches keep us sharp and in top game shape. We will be fine."
The Cougars have played 13 matches, and have 13 left on their schedule, so they truly are at the midway point of the season.
So far, so good, said third-year coach Chris McGown.
"I am pleasantly surprised with how the season has gone," McGown said. "Clearly, I have a lot of confidence in this team. We have been playing really, really good volleyball. Just knowing how good the other teams are that we've played, what we have done so far has been really impressive."
There were a few doubters after the Cougars dropped a pair of nonconference matches at No. 1 Loyola (Chicago) and No. 12 Lewis to open the season, but "those were two really, really good teams, and on the road," Reyes said.
Since then, BYU has gone 10-1, the five-set loss at Pepperdine the only setback.
"We are getting better. We are not No. 1, but we are in first place in the conference right now, which is really all that matters," Reyes said.
McGown has seemingly found a suitable replacement for freshman phenom Ben Patch, the opposite hitter who left on an LDS Church mission after the Cougars lost in the national championship match to UC Irvine last spring.
"Matt [Underwood] and Carson [Heninger] in the opposite spot have certainly been a nice duo," McGown said. 'They complement each other well. Tim [Dobbert] is getting healthy again, and he is starting to play well."
And senior superstar Taylor Sander, an outside hitter, has sparkled. Sander has moved up to No. 3 on BYU's career kills list during the rally-scoring era with 1,451 and is averaging 4.46 kills per set this season, fourth-best in the nation. Sophomore middle blocker Michael Hatch is No. 3 in the country in blocks per set with 1.49.
"Absolutely, yeah, absolutely," McGown said when asked if this team can contend for the national title. "I like where we are at. I like our personnel. I like our work ethic. … We are not an underdog, and there's no chip on our shoulder, but the idea is to play like there is."
O At Smith Fieldhouse, Provo
Friday, 7 p.m. • No. 7 USC at No. 2 BYU
Saturday, 7 p.m. • No. 4 Pepperdine at No. 2 BYU
Note: BYUtv will televise both matches live