Anderson Three-peats as Player of Year

By BJ Evans | Dec. 15, 2014, 6:03 p.m. (ET)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Dec. 15, 2014) – ’Tis the season to give awards and the U.S. Men’s National Team was feeling generous after a 2014 season that included a victory at the FIVB World League.

The team gave out three awards for the 2014 season. Matt Anderson (West Seneca, N.Y.) took Men’s Indoor Player of the Year. Taylor Sander (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) was named Rookie of the Year and Sean Rooney (Wheaton, Ill.) has been named Most Inspirational.

Matt Anderson

Matt Anderson, 27, was named Player of the Year for the third straight year. For the third straight year he has led the team in kills (431 in 100 sets) and scoring (485 points). He was second in digs (122) and third in aces (27).

Matt Anderson
   Matt Anderson attacks against Iran.
He has done it all while dealing with the pressures of being the face of the U.S. Men’s National Team. He has amassed more than 16,000 Instagram followers and more than 58,000 Twitter followers.

“He’s the guy that you follow to get onto the bus,” U.S. opposite Carson Clark said. “Because then you don’t have to talk to anybody or sign anything because he’s the guy.”

He also did it while playing the majority of the season at opposite, where U.S. Head Coach John Speraw moved him in 2013. It has been an adjustment as Anderson has played most of his professional career on the left side.

Anderson’s performance in World League was incredible as he led all players in scoring during pool play and finished third in the Final Round.

Going into the summer and having a lot of new guys on the team and new face in the gym, I was concerned about our expectations for ourselves and my personal expectations for me,” Anderson said. “When we started playing well, the thing that was cool is that we were able to go in without the expectation of winning and just have fun. That’s when we played our best volleyball.”

But after the U.S. team won World League, expectations mounted for its performance at the FIVB World Championship in Poland. Pressure on the team built when it lost two key matches in the first round of Worlds, making every match in the second round a “must-win.” A five-set loss to Argentina in the final match of the second round sent the U.S. team home earlier than hoped.

“We didn’t start as well as we wanted to, but overall I think we played well,” Anderson said. “I think we all have the same mentality. Nine times out of 10, we play that Argentinian team, we beat them. We weren’t prepared to do what was necessary to win that match at that moment.”

The expectations and pressures that Anderson puts on himself caught up with him this fall and he chose to leave his Russian club team to spend time in New York with his family. However he is planning to return to the U.S. Men’s Team in 2015.

“The fact that I love the game and I don’t want to stop playing is a motivating and driving factor,” he said.

Taylor Sander

Yes, it’s a cliché. But “meteoric” is probably still the best word to describe outside hitter Taylor Sander’s rise with the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Taylor Sander
   Taylor Sander celebrates during the World League Final Round.
On May 1, Sander, 22, played his final match for BYU, suffering a five-set loss to Stanford in the semifinals of the NCAA Men’s Championship. While in Chicago for the tournament, he also accepted the AVCA Player of the Year Award.

Two weeks later, he was playing in the NORCECA world championships qualifying tournament with the senior U.S. Men’s Team in Colorado Springs. He played only six setts, but still won the award as Best Server with eight aces and was the team’s fourth-leading scorer with 22 points.

He went with the team straight from Colorado Springs to Bulgaria for the first weekend of the FIVB World League, where Sander’s role became more prominent when three-time Olympic outside hitter Reid Priddy suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Sander started every set of World League. He finished pool play as the third-leading scorer overall with 172 kills, 22 blocks and 12 aces. In the Final Round, he finished second among all scorers (behind Amir Ghafour of Iran) with 66 points on 60 kills, three blocks and three aces. He was named the World League Most Valuable player.

“I feel lucky,” Sanders said in an interview with BYUtv following World League. “This is the last thing that I would have ever expected. I still don’t feel like I’m deserving of that award because I feel like I have a long way to go and need to get a lot better.”

But Sander continued to play well at the World Championship, where the team was not only missing Priddy, but also outside hitter Sean Rooney, who had played a major role in World League.

In the final season statistics, Sander was the teams’ second-leading scorer with 463 points in 106 sets0. He was second in kills with 387.  He was second in aces (behind middle blocker Max Holt) with 35. He was third in blocks (behind Holt and Olympic middle blocker David Lee) with 41. He was third in digs behind Anderson and libero Erik Shoji with 113.

Sander said winning World League was the highlight of his season.

“It was also great just gaining experience against some of the best players in the world,” he said from Italy, where he is playing professional club volleyball for Verona.

“The biggest challenge I faced was learning to adjust to traveling and life on the road,” he said. “Things are a lot easier when you are home and not going from hotel to hotel in another country.”

Sean Rooney

In 2006, a 23-year-old Sean Rooney gave up playing professional beach volleyball to join the U.S. Men’s National Team. By 2013, at age 30, Rooney was a team veteran, with two Olympic Games and an Olympic gold medal to his credit. He was asked to serve as team captain and accepted the role.

Sean Rooney
   Sean Rooney kisses the World League trophy.
“I was one of the youngest players not too long ago,” he said. “Age-wise, we were very experienced in 2008. Now we have a younger team. It has catapulted me into a leadership position and I’ve been trying to embrace it. It’s an honor to have that role.”

The highlight of Rooney’s 2014 season was winning his second World League gold medal, but this time as the team’s captain.

“The finals were unbelievable,” he said. “I’ll never forget them.”

Rooney was the team’s fourth-leading scorer in World League with 94 points on 80 kills, nine blocks and five aces in 43 sets.

But what observers didn't know was that Rooney was playing with a back injury. The problem became obvious when, at the last minute, he told Head Coach John Speraw he could not compete at the World Championship.

“I was playing in a lot of pain through the whole World League tournament,” Rooney said. “That’s what kept me from going to Poland. I was in bad shape, but my mind didn't quite believe it. I made a couple last-ditch efforts before I had to tell John that I couldn't go.”

Rooney’s 2014 offseason has been spent rehabbing to get back into playing shape. Meanwhile, Rooney and wife Valerie welcomed their first child, son Coleman, to the family in November.

While Rooney isn't sure what the future will hold, his goal is to help the team qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games.

“My biggest goal is to do whatever I can to prepare the team however I can for the World Cup,” He said. “Ultimately, our goal is to win gold at the Olympics. The best way to start that quest is to go to Japan for World Cup and let everyone know we’re in the top three in the world. Come and get us.”