April 10, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. -
Saturday night just seemed different for Stanford senior setter Kawika Shoji.
"It was pretty amazing how it turned out," Shoji said. "It was Senior Night, and we were playing USC, with all the history between the teams and the way they broke our hearts last year.
"It was fitting, especially as the culmination of four very very tough years."
For top-ranked Stanford, nothing was more fitting than its 30-23, 30-24, 30-15 victory over the No. 6 Trojans before 1,290 at Maples Pavilion in a match that earned the Cardinal homecourt advantage for the first round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament and maintained its course for the regular season title.
Fitting in that Stanford was eliminated by USC in the first-round of the MPSF tournament last year when the Trojans rallied from two sets down at Maples Pavilion.
Fitting in that USC has its own three-player Hawaiian connection that doesn't quite match Stanford's seven island natives, but brings familiarity and fervor to the rivalry.
And fitting in that the final regular season home match in the careers of five Stanford seniors was born of a 3-25 freshman season and has evolved into a No. 1 ranking and a dominant victory over a highly-regarded rival.
As one of those five seniors, Shoji felt the combination of such factors would make for an unforgettable night. And he was right ... at least for Stanford.
A second-set rally from seven points down not only propelled Stanford to a second-set victory, but seemed to siphon the desire out of USC for the third set as well.
After controlling most of the first set, Stanford fell behind in the second by scores of 10-3 and 14-7 before Evan Romero (13 kills) sparked a run with three kills that enabled the Cardinal to tie the score at 17-17.
A service ace by Jason Palacios gave Stanford its first lead of the set. And a kill by Brad Lawson (15 kills), followed by two aces from Shoji, put the Cardinal ahead for good.
"That's a huge sign of maturity for this team," Shoji said. "We got down, but never panicked. We broke them down one point at a time. In the past, we might not have done that."
Overall, Stanford hit .376 while limiting the Trojans to .133 and USC standout Murphy Troy to negative-.034. And the Cardinal defense and passing was far superior. Stanford took USC's best shots and gave them right back, usually with spectacular results.
Still, "There's always room for improvement," said Shoji, who had 36 assists, 13 digs, four kills and four blocks. "We still need to tighten up some of our blocking and I need to continue to build my connection with the hitters.
"By no means have we accomplished what we set out to accomplish. By no means are we satisfied with the results."
As far as the MPSF race is concerned, this we know: First place, and the top seed for the eight-team conference tournament, won't be determined until the final day of the regular season, which is Saturday. Stanford (18-5 overall, 15-5 MPSF) holds a one-game lead over second-place Cal State Northridge and BYU (each 14-6), but nothing is simple.
Stanford, which concludes at No. 7 UCLA on Friday at No. 10 UC Irvine on Saturday while Northridge and BYU play each other in a two-match series, can clinch at least a share of the regular-season title with one victory. But unless Northridge and BYU split, Stanford would need two victories to earn the top seed because Northridge and BYU hold tiebreaker advantages over Stanford.
Why is first place and the top seed so important? It provides a strong argument to the NCAA selection committee when choosing the recipient of the only at-large bid. Also, the top remaining seed gets to host the final four of the MPSF tournament, which determines the only conference's sole automatic bid to the NCAA's. A homecourt edge could be vital in a conference with so much such parity.
"We need to go in with a mindset that we have to take care of business in L.A.," Stanford coach John Kosty said. "At the same time, it would be nice to win league, but that's not our ultimate goal. We have our sites set on a national championship. We just want the road to go through Stanford."