April 9, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. - The last Stanford volleyball player to crack a smile after a heart-pounding 30-22, 30-25, 36-38, 26-30, 15-6 victory over No. 3 Pepperdine on Friday night was Evan Romero. After 59 swings – nearly twice as many as any teammate – and a career-high 37 kills, Romero looked too weary to do so.
But somehow, like the energy he mustered to pound five kills in the decisive fifth set, Romero found the reserve to run through the tunnel formed by victorious screaming classmates, just like a kid after a soccer game at the neighborhood park.
On a night when outside hitters Brad Lawson and Spencer McLachlin struggled to a combined .143 hitting percentage, Romero picked up the slack to help Stanford stay atop the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation before 1,420 at Maples Pavilion.
Pepperdine (14-8, 12-7) withstood six match points in the third set to stay alive, and turned the momentum to force a fifth set. But a first-point Garrett Werner kill helped Stanford bolt to a 5-1 lead and the Waves never drew closer.
Stanford (17-5, 14-5) held its position in a tight MPSF race with three matches left while Pepperdine’s hopes for the top seed in the upcoming conference tournament – which determines the MPSF’s lone automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament – are essentially over.
Going into the weekend, five teams were clustered within one game of first place, though only Stanford and Pepperdine were in position to control their own destiny to earn the No. 1 seed. Now, only Stanford remains. But standing in its path is No. 6 USC, the national preseason No. 1, which plays the Cardinal at Maples Pavilion on Saturday night at 7.
Romero, a senior opposite hitter, hit .492, with only eight errors in 59 attacks. His previous career high was 34 kills, set during his sophomore year. Besides his kills, Romero’s intense play seemed to energize a flagging Cardinal and his solo block to make it 13-4 was vital as well.
“This was a huge match for us no matter what,” Romero said. “But we know every game right now is a huge game.”
Coach John Kosty made that point clear after Stanford’s four-set loss at Cal State Northridge last weekend, a match which ended a Cardinal winning streak at eight and tightened up the MPSF race.
Kosty sensed some anxiety and stress may have played a role in the loss, and sat the team down afterward and reminded them to expect more of it from here on out.
“It we’re going to have a national championship run,” Kosty told them, “we’re going to have games like that.”
Kosty elaborated after Friday’s match.
“We play tough teams from here to whenever our season’s over,” he said. “I think we prepared very well for this point. Now, we just have to play the matches.”
Stanford took the initiative against Pepperdine by powering to fairly easy victories in the first two sets, with plays such as Lawson’s kill through a triple block and McLachlin’s pancake dig that led to another Cardinal point. McLachlin had only eight kills, but 14 digs and four assists.
Gus Ellis had 11 kills and only one error in 22 attacks (.455), as well as six blocks, including three solo. Kawika Shoji had 70 assists, 11 digs, and six kills, and an expression of pure determination even as Pepperdine parried Stanford’s efforts to close the match quickly and easily.
But, ultimately, it didn’t happen, despite that fact that Pepperdine seemed to suck some of the life out of Stanford after the Cardinal’s failure to close out the third set. In fact, both teams seemed spent as they headed into the fifth set.
Sensing that his team needed a boost, senior Ed Howell, out for the season with an injury and now serving as a student manager, gathered the Cardinal in the corner of the gym. Pushing for increased energy and deepened focused, Howell yelled and screamed until the team followed suit and fired themselves up.
“In pregame, we talk about who’s going to be the ‘X’ Factor,” Kosty said. “We want it to be the team. Tonight, it was Evan.”