A Championship Season
From the first day of practice, the thought of an NCAA title was a distinct possibility. Hard work, talented players, quality coaches formed the right ingredients to set the Stanford Cardinal in the right direction.
On Saturday, May 3, the Stanford men's volleyball team realized its season-long dream with a dramatic five-game victory over the UCLA Bruins. Matt Fuerbringer and Mike Hoefer combined for a block on championship point to give Stanford the game and match.
All the hard work, the countless hours in the gym, the strain of lifting weights, the pressure of upholding a #1 national ranking paid off. Stanford were NCAA men's volleyball champions in 1997.
The Cardinal began the season the way it would finish it, traveling to Columbus, Ohio, to participate in the NCAA Preview Tournament. Victories over IPFW and Ohio State started the march to the NCAA title. Mike Lambert's 66 kills during the two matches made it clear that he was one of the top players in the nation.
"Mike had two really strong matches," remembers head coach Ruben Nieves. "Mike played really well when we needed him most and carried us at crucial spots throughout both matches."
Five road matches in MPSF play proved to be a bit rocky. Three victories in five matches meant that the road to the NCAA title would not be easy. The MPSF is the toughest collegiate conference in the nation, so it wasn't a complete surprise that the Cardinal would lose. Losses at USC and Brigham Young were to nationally-ranked schools with great traditions in volleyball.
Stanford returned to the friendly confines of Burnham Pavilion and the team proceeded to score victories over UC Santa Barbara, Pacific, USC, Long Beach State and Loyola of Chicago.
The Cardinal then hit the road and fell to UCLA, 3-1. It was to be the last Stanford loss of the season.
Whether it be a road match or at home, Stanford put its talents in high gear. Twelve straight victories vaulted Stanford into the MPSF playoffs. Fuerbringer led the way in a win over Pepperdine with 23 kills and a .531 hitting percentage. Stanford relied heavily on Fuerbringer for the rest of the MPSF tourney, as he added 17 kills against BYU and capped off a week in which he was named Player of the Week with a .556 hitting performance at UCLA, which ended the Bruins four-year stranglehold on the league title.
Stanford headed back to Columbus, where it began the season. The Cardinal destroyed Ball State behind 46 kills from the combination of Fuerbringer, Lambert and Andy Witt.
In the championship match against UCLA, Stanford took game one, 15-7, with relative ease. The Cardinal used a 10-1 scoring run in game two to erase a 9-5 deficit and looked to be on its way to a three-game sweep. Final score in game two, 15-10. But, with a 7-5 lead in game three, the Bruins caught fire and came back with a 10-2 run of their own and closed the match score at 2-1 with a 15-9 decision. The reversal of fortunes continued in game four, with UCLA hitting .400, earning the Bruins a 15-6 win and tying the match at 2-2. The Cardinal took a 2-0 lead in game five, with UCLA going ahead by two at 6-4 moments later. Stanford tied the game at six points apiece, at which the two teams battled back and forth, exchanging points with neither team able to go ahead by more than a point, leading up to the game's ninth tie at 13-13. UCLA served in the net, giving the Cardinal a 14-13 lead and setting up the winning block on championship point.
Lambert scored 27 kills, while Witt had 19, and Keenan Whitehurst added 17 kills, nine total blocks and a .617 hitting percentage. Lambert was named MVP of the NCAA Final Four and Whitehurst was named to the all-tourney team.
"We achieved a goal, and any time you can achieve a goal in your life, it's pretty sweet," Fuerbringer said.
Nieves was named Coach of the Year by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) and Volleyball Magazine. Fuerbringer gained first team honors by the AVCA and Volleyball Magazine. Lambert gained second team All-America honors. Setter Stewart Chong was named an honorable mention All-American.