May 1, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. - The quest has been two-fold for the No. 1 Stanford men’s volleyball team: Win a national championship and play flawless volleyball.
In the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament final on Saturday night, Stanford got a glimpse of both: The Cardinal advanced to its first NCAA Tournament since 1997 by beating Cal State Northridge, 30-24, 30-28, 30-17, and finished it off with perhaps its finest set of the season.
“That third set was the closest we’ve come this year to playing to our potential,” Stanford All-American setter Kawika Shoji said. “It was a great step in the right direction because we’re peaking at the right time.”
Evan Romero had 19 kills and Brad Lawson 15 to lead Stanford (22-6) to an MPSF regular-season and tournament double, the first in the conference since Pepperdine accomplished the feat in 2005. Stanford also captured its first conference tournament title since its national championship year of 1997 and exceeded its victory total for any season since then.
It was an incredible display for Stanford in sweeping the only conference team the Cardinal hadn’t beaten this year. In fact, Stanford had managed to beat Northridge (23-9), the No. 3-ranked team, only once in their past eight meetings over the past three years.
But Stanford did so by blasting to a quick early lead and holding on to win the first set, coming through in the clutch to capture a tight second one, and breaking down the Matadors in the third to cap it all off.
Now, Stanford will be the likely the No. 1 seed in the four-team NCAA Tournament at Maples Pavilion on May 6 and 8. Midwestern conference champion Ohio State and Eastern conference champion Penn State will join the Cardinal in the field, and Northridge is expected to be awarded an at-large berth, which will be announced during Sunday’s selection show between 11-11:30 a.m. on ESPNews.
“It’s great to win the regular season and tournament championships,” Stanford coach John Kosty
said. “But we’ve had a season-long goal of winning the national
championship. We’re focused on the process of achieving that goal.”
Stanford's success highlights the contrasts to 2007 when the Cardinal suffered through a 3-25 season and finished last in the MPSF. The “Worst to First” motto created by late assistant coach Al Roderigues remains alive for the senior class that struggled through that dismal campaign as freshmen.
“This is all part of the process of being the best we can be,” Shoji said, of the significance of the MPSF title. “But it also means a lot to our program. I don’t think any of us can diminish the significance of it.”
Supported by a loud home crowd of 1,210 at Maples Pavilion, an emotionally-charged Stanford team broke to a 14-2 lead in a first set full of huge momentum shifts. Stanford’s came on a 10-point Spencer McLachlin service run and was aided by four consecutive Gus Ellis blocks, followed by a McLachlin ace.
“That just set the standard for the type of intensity we needed to come out with,” said Ellis, who matched his team season highs of nine blocks and three solos. “We had a pretty good start to just about every game, and that was in large part because we came ready to play and hungry.”
However, Northridge responded with a 16-6 run of its own to close within 20-18 on a kill by 7-foot-2 middle Jacek Ratajczak, who would finish with 15 – the only Matador in double figures – and a .500 hitting percentage.
At that point, Shoji, the captain, and Kosty convinced the team to scale the effort back.
“We were trying to do too much,” senior middle Garrett Werner said. “We had to go back to do what we were doing.”
McLachlin and Lawson helped Stanford regain control with back-to-back momentum-halting kills and the Cardinal never let Northridge within three the remainder of the set.
The second was close throughout. Stanford had a brief early lead, but failed to get it back until seizing it at 29-28 on a triple block by Shoji, Ellis, and McLachlin. Lawson’s kill finished off the set, riled the crowd into a fervor and seemed to transport the mometum into Game Three.
Though Northridge grabbed a 5-3 lead, a series of kills Romero kills ignited an 11-2 Stanford run that lifted the heavily-costumed crowd into a crescendo that did not abate until the Cardinal was holding the MPSF trophy.
“If we keep improving as a team, there’s going to be no way of stopping us,” Werner said.
Stanford’s known for more than a year that it would the NCAA’s, but if the team had somehow failed to qualify, “It would not have been fun,” Shoji said.
But the Cardinal has indeed made it fun.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Kosty, who also offered these cautionary words, “But we’re still in the process, and we still have a match on Thursday.”
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics