April 13, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. - Each year, after the crowds have stepped into the night and the air blowers can be heard in the background, the Stanford men's volleyball team gathers in a corner of Maples Pavilion and reminisce about the graduating seniors who have played their final home match.
There always are tears, or at least the threat of them, and there always is laughter. And that's what outside hitter Jake Kneller will remember despite Stanford's Senior Night loss to No. 1 BYU on Saturday.
Steven Irvin had 15 kills and the Cardinal had three set points in the opening set in front of a raucous season-high crowd of 1,672. But Stanford could not hold the pace in a 30-28, 25-18, 25-21 loss in the regular-season finale.
The match carried no weight - both Stanford and BYU already had their seedings secure for the eight-team Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament. Stanford (15-12 overall, 12-12 MPSF) is the sixth seed and plays at third-seeded Long Beach State on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Regular-season champ BYU (22-4, 21-3) holds the top seed and, with a first-round victory over eighth-seeded Hawai'i, would play host to the tournament's final four.
Only the MPSF tournament winner receives an automatic berth in the NCAA playoffs, but BYU's dominant regular-season would seem to provide enough credentials for an at-large berth already.
Stanford played about as well as it has all season in taking leads of 22-19, 24-23, 25-24, and 27-26 - the latter on a service ace by Irvin, moments after he teamed with Eric Mochalski on a block point. But the Cardinal could not hold the pace. Irvin had six kills and a .500 hitting percentage in the first set and finished with seven digs, three blocks and an ace.
Freshman setter James Shaw was in his element, providing kills on a platter for his teammates. The balls floated to just the right spots and always seemed to catch the defense by surprise, whether to a trailing Irvin leaping from the back row, or with his own two-handed stuff over the net.
But BYU is exceptional. Stanford has proven it can play with a team the caliber of the Cougars if it brings the energy, rolls out some aggressive serving, and uses a variety of players to thunder points home. Even in the postmatch reception with families and friends, there was talk of a national championship ... if the Cardinal can play like it did in that elusive first set, and sustain that level through a match and through a tournament.
Stanford hasn't proven it can do that yet, but Kneller, the lone veteran of Stanford's 2010 NCAA championship team, has been there. But can he carry the others there as well, even in his role as a spot starter and serving specialist? But that wasn't the important topic on Saturday after the loss, in a corner of Maples Pavilion. It was roasting Kneller.
"I remember playing at Lewis," Mochalski said. "Sophomore year. Jake had let his hair grow out a little - there was definite flow - and was growing all this facial hair. The crowd started calling him `Wolfman.' And to this day, I've never Jake rip his serves like he did when the crowd was chanting, `Wolfman.'"
Stanford's season will be over with its next loss, or if it can muster a Cinderella run for the ages. Either way, the laughter of this evening will remain in the echoes of a building and in the memory of a senior.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics