Week after week, the Penn State men’s volleyball team has faced some of the best players in the country this season.
Whether it was from Ohio State opposite Shawn Sangrey, Princeton outside hitter Cody Kessel or USC’s outside hitter Tony Ciarelli, the No. 7 Nittany Lions (20-3, 13-0 EIVA) have been given a run for their money from a number of the nation’s elite.
Yet none of them generates the buzz of BYU outsider hitter Taylor Sander, whom the Lions are getting ready to face this weekend when they head to Provo, Utah for a two-game series with the Cougars.
Sander, a sophomore, is considered by many as the top player in the country. After returning from a hand injury that caused him to miss a month of action, he recorded a nation-best 176 kills during the month of March.
Penn State coach Mark Pavlik didn’t hold back in his praise for BYU’s star hitter.
“Taylor is probably the brightest young star we have in men’s collegiate volleyball,” Pavlik said. “[He] does everything really well, competes real hard. From what I’ve been able to see, I think he makes people around him better.”
The Lions know they won’t be able to keep Sander off the scoreboard, but Pavlik said they hope to slow him down at crucial times in the game.
Redshirt freshman Connor Curry has played against Sander his whole volleyball career and considers him a good friend.
Curry grew up playing against Sander in club volleyball in Southern California and as a teammate with the 2009 U.S. Boys National Youth Training Team.
Curry said Sander’s a fun player to watch, but he is also a fun player to play against.
“He can jump out of the gym,” Curry said. “He’s got a good all-around game, I think he’s played about every position on the court.”
Sander is second in the country in kills per set with 4.74, , second in hitting at .392 and despite missing a month of games, he leads the Cougars in kills with 339.
Sander is also one of the best servers in the country, as he is fifth in aces per set at .51.
Curry said one way to slow Sander down is to make him handle the ball in serve-receive situations and try to force him to do too many things at once.
Recently, Sander won a fan vote as player of the month on volleyball website Offtheblockblog.com.
Off the Block Editor-in-Chief Vinnie Lopes said BYU is a completely different team when Sander is on the floor.
BYU has lost six games this season, but three of them have been without Sander in the lineup.
“When he’s on the court this year, he’s been the best player in college volleyball,” Lopes said.
Lopes said that he’ll probably be the toughest outside attacker Penn State has seen this year, but the size of Penn State’s middle and outside hitters should be beneficial when it comes to trying to block Sander at the net.
Sander impacted the college volleyball landscape right away in his freshman year as he was named the 2011 MPSF freshman of the year and was named to the All-MPSF First team.
BYU head coach Chris McGown said there are teams that rely on one player to step up for their team and Sander is that guy for BYU.
“If he plays great, we kind of play great,” McGown said. “If he struggles, it’s hard for us. He’s wonderfully inspirational to our guys and it just smoothes everybody out when he’s playing well.”