Looking back at 2014, when Taylor Sander first joined the U.S. men’s volleyball team, it’s hard to believe how much has happened in just three years.
The team won the gold medal at the FIVB World League that year, an achievement they hope to repeat at this year’s tournament that began for the Americans on July 4 in Curitiba, Brazil.
Sander was named MVP and best outside spiker of that tournament, as well as the AVCA player of the year and USAV men’s indoor rookie of the year. He now has an Olympic bronze medal and is one of the leaders counted on to set an example for the team’s younger players.
“It is crazy that I’m a veteran and I’m only 25,” said the native of Fountain Valley, California. “It’s weird that I’ve only been on the team for three or four years and I’m a veteran because I’ve already had a lot of experience with these big tournaments. It’s weird, but it’s cool.”
Sander had a record-setting career at BYU and had progressed through the youth and junior national team ranks, but wasn’t sure what his role would be on the senior team and certainly didn’t expect to make the impact he did right out of the gate. He became a starter his first year after making his debut at the 2014 World Championship qualifier in mid-May, shortly after his college career ended.
Two months later, the U.S. opened play at the World League Final in Florence, Italy.
“I was so nervous,” he said. “It was really nerve-racking. I remember I played really bad the first match because I was just trying too hard. I had a good talk with (coach) John (Speraw) and he’s been pretty good at giving me advice when I’m not playing my best. He told me to go have fun and that’s what I did and we were able to turn it around.”
In the gold medal game against top-ranked Brazil, Sander recorded 24 points on 22 kills to lead the U.S. in scoring for the third match in a row. Being named MVP was great, Sander said, but not nearly as special as winning the team gold. He credited much of his personal success to his teammates and to the unknown.
“Nobody else in the world really knew who I was so I think we just kind of caught them by surprise,” he said.
He certainly couldn’t say the same after the tournament.
By the time the team competed in the Olympic Games last summer, Sander was one of the players they counted on most. The U.S. lost the first two games in Rio before defeating Brazil, France and Mexico to advance to the knockout round, and then swept Poland in the quarterfinals. Captain David Lee told the Deseret News after that game that Sander was their “X factor.”
“When he’s in the game and he’s confident, he’s one of the best players in the world, and we need that guy every night,” said Lee, who called Sander “the future” after the World League gold medal match in 2014.
Sander still hasn’t gone back and watched the matches from Rio. The team lost to Italy, 3-2, in the semifinals then beat Russia, 3-2, for the bronze medal.
“It still stings pretty bad that we weren’t able to get to that final,” he said. “But I’ve been able to reflect on the experience I had. It’s been cool to think back on that trip and the experience. It’s not something you get to do everyday. It definitely still doesn’t feel real.”
When the men started World League play in Serbia this spring, only five of them were on the Olympic roster. Four were either still in college or recently graduated. It’s been up to Sander and the other veterans to lead the way both on and off the court.
“It’s definitely a bigger responsibility but we have to set the tone for the younger guys when it comes to practice and the weight room,” he said. “I remember my first year on the team I wasn’t a pro yet and there were lots of things I didn’t know about taking care of my body, watching video, and these guys are having to learn that from the older guys on the team. It holds us accountable, which is nice, and I think it’s good for me.”
The men closed out World League pool play with a win over Poland, but still had to wait on the outcome of Argentina versus Bulgaria to learn if they’d have a spot in the final round. They all watched the match on television together, and with Bulgaria’s loss, they finished sixth and secured their spot. They opened play against top-ranked France, falling 3-2.
“It’s a little bit of an unknown,” Sander said of what the team might be capable of in the final. “We just want to go and play USA volleyball and get better. I think being the first year in the quad we’re going to have to learn to play well in these kind of tournaments. For us we just want to go out try and the win first point of the first match and try to win the point after that. If we end up medaling or winning that’s a bonus of the effort we put in. I’m excited to just go out and play and see what happens.”