April 13, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - Sometimes, it takes effort to reflect.
A match is heating up and much is going on. But sometimes, to truly appreciate the talent in front of your eyes, it takes an effort of detachment – to let go of immediacy and savor the timeless.
On Friday night, the time was right to appreciate Stanford senior outside hitter Brad Lawson. He had 16 kills and only one attack error in Stanford’s 25-19, 25-14, 25-20 men’s volleyball victory over UC Santa Barbara at Maples Pavilion.
Now, heading into Saturday's 7 p.m. regular-season finale against visiting UCLA, No. 5 Stanford (19-6, 16-5) still could finish in a first-place tie with as many as three other teams, if first-place USC (17-4) loses to Cal State Northridge, though BYU would receive the No. 1 seed in such an event.
However, a more likely aim is the No. 2 seed for the eight-team MPSF tournament. That would be Stanford’s reward for beating UCLA (16-5), which shares third place in the MPSF standings with the Cardinal.
A loss could drop Stanford all the way to No. 5, which would prevent the Cardinal from being among the four to play host to first-round matches. Only the tournament champion receives an automatic berth into the four-team NCAA Tournament.
“The staff hasn’t really gotten caught up in it – players sometimes can,” Stanford coach John Kosty of the madness that is the MPSF race. “We just need to play one point, one set, one match at a time. It’s just a process as we go through the season.
“The one where I checked it off was during spring break when we qualified for the MPSF playoffs. That’s the first big hurdle you want to get over. Everything else … we’re good at home. We’re good on the road. Wherever we finish, I’m confident that this team can rally and make a good run in the playoffs.”
And that message hits home with talent such as seniors Lawson, Erik Shoji
, Gus Ellis
, and even fifth-year senior Charley Henrikson
, who achieved something that no player in Stanford history had done before. He became Stanford’s first 100-victory player and punctuated that achievement with a floor-thumping kill off the bench to end the second set.
With the UCLA match possibly the last at home for the winningest senior class in Stanford history (83 victories in four years), their abilities were cast in sharp relief as opportunities to see them play in a Stanford uniform become rare.
That’s a shame, because Lawson will be regarded for generations as one of Stanford’s all-time greats, as will Shoji, players who have combined for five first-team All-America honors.
Lawson’s hitting percentage of .721 was a team season high, but that's just a figure. It was his ability to rise above the net and powerfully strike a ball to just the right spot at just the right moment that he has mastered.
“What overshadowed everything was Brad had a great night,” Kosty said. “Brad played like an All-American tonight. Every push that Santa Barbara tried to make, Brad just buried the ball. Tonight, Gus got a record, Charley got his 100th win, but the match belonged to Brad.”
The night also belonged to Ellis. His three blocks allowed him to break the school career rally-scoring era record of 369 held by Garrett Werner (2007-10). Ellis now has 370. It was his smack-down solo in the second set that tied the mark.
The record was fitting in that it provided a tangible something to a career that hasn’t him many accolades, but has been vital to Stanford throughout his career in so many ways.
“He’s just been rock solid in the middle for, it seems like the last decade,” Kosty said. “He’s just a solid middle blocker who works hard for you every day. He wants to continually get better. He’s got a great mindset to be successful in this game. He’s humble. He never wants the spotlight. But when he does shine, he can really excite the team.”
Kosty realized that a proper description of Ellis must include his stature as a person and teammate.
“He’s got a great personality,” Kosty said. “He’s always got something positive to say about everybody -- never finds anything negative. He’s a tremendous human being. It’s been a privilege for the last four years to coach him and have him in our family.”
Shoji, who could become the first in program history to receive first-team All-America honors all four years, had another strong performance, this time measured by 14 digs. The reigning National Player of the Week has 47 in the past three matches.
On Saturday, a postgame ceremony will honor Stanford's seven graduating seniors, and a pregame ceremony will honor retiring Al Scates, UCLA's coach for 50 years.
Maybe then will reflection come easily, as it should.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics