March 3, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. - The Stanford men's volleyball team is finding its way, and that path has taken it straight through its biggest rival.
On Sunday night, the No. 4 Cardinal rallied to a 26-28, 25-17, 18-25, 25-21, 15-10 victory over No. 13 USC in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation action at Maples Pavilion.
USC is a team that has unnerved Stanford in recent years, piling up five consecutive victories in the series and taking a 2-1 lead after three sets in this one. But Stanford looked past the uniforms and instead focused the spaces in the floor it could attack and the weaknesses in the defense it could exploit.
By the time the Cardinal overcame its flat beginning, it was rolling in the passing and serving game, and at the height of its individual excellence.
Two examples: Brian Cook had 20 kills, nine digs, six blocks, and four service aces in addition to his .326 hitting percentage. And freshman setter James Shaw had 48 assists, 10 digs, and four blocks.
Stanford (12-6 overall, 9-6 MPSF) won its 13th consecutive match at Maples and earned its second five-set victory in as many nights, following a 15-13 fifth-set triumph over Pepperdine on Saturday.
"We're a young team that's still learning," Stanford coach John Kosty said. "And one of the things we have to learn is we need to play at a high level with or without emotion. That's what it takes to win the close ones, and teams that are winning the fifth games are the ones in the top half of the MPSF."
Cook and fellow junior Steven Irvin, who had 12 kills, often take turns being the team's offensive force. Their evolution from being good to often great is what's steering the Cardinal into being a truly dangerous team.
"It's a long process to move into the upper echelon of players in the MPSF," Kosty said. "They've paid their dues and now it's paying off. They're dedicated volleyball players, and we've watched them grow up. It's been an incredible journey."
USC (4-9, 4-9) has administered its share of heartbreak upon the Cardinal in recent years. Don't ever bring up the 2009 home MPSF tournament loss to Kosty, when the Cardinal won the first two sets, but lost the match. That one still burns.
Did the Trojans get into Stanford's heads? The last time they played, Stanford was swept in the Southland. How else to explain the one-sided matches when Stanford had just as much right to win?
But Sunday's victory, however, seemed to serve as some sort of mental exorcism.
"It's always a battle," Kosty said. "It really started six or seven years ago and it hasn't subsided."
Battling was something that Stanford was forced into when USC took a 14-10 lead in the fourth set. But the Cardinal rallied, thanks to its serving.
After an Eric Mochalski kill for sideout, Jake Kneller aced the Trojans and served three consecutive points to tie the score, 14-14.
Moments later, Mochalski served five consecutive points, including two aces, to allow Stanford to bolt to a 20-15 lead and take control.
In the fifth set, two aces by Cook helped build a 3-1 Stanford lead. An Irvin kill through a double block, and his own solo block on the next point, helped Stanford build an 8-2 lead that it largely maintained to the end, which came on a Mochalski slam.
Again, as in the previous two portions of Stanford's three-match win streak, middles Mochalski and Denny Falls did enough offensively with a combined 15 kills to keep the Cardinal offense versatile enough to attack from all angles.
USC, as they say, didn't know what hit `em. And, for Stanford's players, all but lone senior Jake Kneller finally experienced their first victory over its biggest rival.
The Cardinal, at last, found a way to beat USC.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics