April 29, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. - In every match, there is a moment of truth. On Thursday night, Stanford met that moment head on and closed within one victory of ensuring an NCAA men's volleyball tournament appearance on its home floor.
Stanford got 18 kills apiece from Evan Romero and Brad Lawson to beat Hawai'i, 30-24, 30-28, 33-31, in the semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament before 1,350 at Maples Pavilion and turns its attention to the only conference team it hasn't beaten all year.
The Cardinal will play No. 3-ranked Cal State Northridge (23-8), a five-set winner over No. 2-ranked BYU (22-9), in the MPSF final Saturday at 7 p.m., with the conference's lone automatic berth to the four-team NCAAs - May 6 and 8 at Maples - awarded to the winner.
The moment that defined Stanford Thursday came after Stanford had blown a four-point second-set lead and called a timeout while trailing 21-19. Rather draw in a conventional way to hear some insight from its coaches, the Cardinal players banned together, with the coaches left standing outside the circle.
What was said during the players-only meeting?
"We started getting away from the gameplan and what our best volleyball is all about," Stanford's senior setter Kawika Shoji said.
"It's go time," was the message among teammates. "Let's start playing Stanford men's volleyball."
Stanford responded with a four-point run highlighted by a pair of lethal Shoji serves that led to an over for a Romero kill, followed by a Gus Ellis solo block. Later, Romero's deep ace aided another three-point run for the go-ahead points.
In the third, Stanford fought off four set points to rally to victory on a pair of hitting errors by Hawai'i (19-10), and further showcase Stanford's ability to avoid panic and break down a team piece by piece.
"We've got a core of five seniors on the team," Stanford coach John Kosty
said. "They started out their career 3-25 four years ago and they've played in this league for four straight years, so they know what's going on. We're there to guide them, but they're the ones battling for each point."
It would seem that an NCAA berth is as close to a certainty as there is, with the MPSF featuring the top nine ranked teams in the country and seemingly a lock for the NCAA's lone at-large berth. If that's the case, there seems no logical scenario that would prevent Stanford, the MPSF regular season champion, from an NCAA berth.
But Kosty, who has coached the Cardinal to its first MPSF final and postseason victories since 1997, would have none of it. The NCAA selections will be announced between 11-11:30 a.m. PDT Sunday on ESPNews.
"We know we're in when we win on Saturday or get a phone call on Sunday," Kosty said, refusing to make any assumptions whatsoever.
"We've got other goals to accomplish, like winning the MPSF Tournament," Shoji said. "But I've got to think we're 99.9 percent sure of it after tonight. But that's not our focus."
The match was special from an emotional standpoint for the Cardinal's five Hawaiian players in uniform - and four starters - who not only were playing against their hometown team from Honolulu, but were on a live telecast back to the islands.
"Whenever we play UH, for the Hawaii guys, it's a fun match to be a part of. We look forward to battling familiar faces across the net, and it's a little extra incentive to play really hard and make Hawaii proud. It's for them to be able to see what we're doing here."
What they saw was a team that had mental strength to avoid getting rattled at emotional plays or officials' calls that go against them, and instead continues to grind forward until the opponent breaks down.
"They rely on their experience to win," Kosty said. "They're veteran volleyball players, and they know how to play the game. They've got four years of good experience on their shoulders and the confidence that they can come through in the clutch."
Stanford (21-6) matched its victory total of last season and now faces a Cal State Northridge team that it failed to beat in a pair of regular season matches.
"We're excited to play Northridge again," Kosty said. "We played them tough both times, and we're ready to get after them again. They're a good team, and they've got a strong, strong middle blocker. We're going to have to continue to get better."
For Shoji that improvement must come from these areas: "We've got to shore up our blocking, we've got to continue to serve consistently. And I think we're headed in the right direction as far as our defensive digging and our sideout game."
Indeed, no team can stop the shots that Stanford can withstand and transfer into its own attacks. Shoji had 13 digs and four Cardinal players had six or more.
As for championships?
"For us, it's all about the process," Kosty said. "It's the day to day process of having a great team. We're not looking toward next week, we're looking forward to tomorrow's practice at 4 o'clock. We've got another opportunity to get better."
- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics