May 8, 2010
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"Stanford's Fairy Tale Ending" by Bev Oden
STANFORD, Calif.- Long after it was all over, and the Stanford men's volleyball team had swept Penn State for the NCAA Collegiate Championship, Stanford coach John Kosty said simply: "Thank you."
Thank you to the seniors, thank you to the rest of the players, and thank you to the parents, "for entrusting your sons to us," Kosty told them in a postgame celebration at Jimmy's Café after the Cardinal's 30-25, 30-20, 30-18 victory before a record and raucous crowd of 6,635 at Maples Pavilion on Saturday.
The title was the second in Stanford history and first since 1997, and it extended the athletic department's streak to 34 consecutive years with a national title.
The trust Kosty spoke of was no empty cliché. He placed this program on the backs of a class of five players, who had to believe in the promise of better days than the 3-25 season they endured as freshmen. Trust, remember?
The catalyst was a gray-haired longtime assistant coach named Al Roderigues, a middle school P.E. teacher, who never accepted a cent for coaching at Stanford. It was he who made hope real.
"Don't worry," Roderigues told them during the quiet van rides on the road that 2007 season. "Someday, you'll go Worst to First."
"I had hope," said National Player of the Year Kawika Shoji, recalling those bitter days. "I dreamed."
For four seasons, Roderigues' motto became a mantra, a theme that echoed along with the sound of volleyballs deflecting off the shadows inside the Burnham Pavilion practice gym. And, as those years passed, the Cardinal kept getting better.
By the time Stanford rolled into the NCAA final, excellence was expected. What it got, however, was perfection.
In volleyball terms, Stanford's stunning performance was as close to perfection as anyone could ask for. The Cardinal (24-6) hit .495 as a team, and sophomore Brad Lawson pummeled the Nittany Lions with 24 kills in 28 swings. His only hitting error came on a kill that was nullified because Lawson stepped on the three-meter line during a backrow attack. He finished with a hitting percentage of .821 - a Stanford season-high by nearly .200 points. It may have been the most dominating performance by an outside hitter in NCAA Tournament history.
"The job that Brad Lawson did ... You know, I've been to a lot of these, and I don't know if I've ever seen such a dominating performance by an outside hitter," Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said.
For two sets, Penn State (24-8) did its best to keep up.
Much like it did in Thursday's semifinal against Ohio State, Stanford broke away late in what had been a tight first set, when a Penn State attack error broke a 19-19 tie and created the opening for a deciding 5-1 run. An Evan Romero ace pushed the momentum along and he finished it with a set-point kill.
Meanwhile, Lawson had eight kills in nine attempts (.889), and continued his torrid hitting into the second, by matching his totals. Through two sets, Lawson had 18 kills and no errors.
"You talk about a player being in the zone," Kosty said. "When a player gets in the zone, you don't talk to them, you don't slap his hand, you just let him be. That's what Brad did tonight."
Stanford fell into a 10-5 deficit in the second set, but Stanford caught and passed the Nittany Lions with a four-point run for a 17-15 lead. Lawson and Romero each had kills in the run. Lawson slammed one into the ground at 23-18, slammed two consecutive kills 27-19, and fired off another of his four service aces with uncharacteristic grunts due to extra effort, to finish off the set the way he had all night -- by forcing Penn State to play from its heels.
"Adrenaline," said Lawson, who shared tournament Most Outstanding Player honors with Shoji. "Kawika was just delivering the ball in the spot. In system, out of system, he was just putting it there. It was easy from that point."
Said Shoji, "I told Brad after the match, `We went to the well and it never dried up.'"
The set effectively broke Penn State, and the match turned into a mesmerizing Stanford volleyball clinic: Middles Garrett Werner and Gus Ellis getting a hand on every ball, Erik Shoji digging the Nittany Lions' best efforts, Kawika Shoji turning the pass into a pinpoint set, and Lawson, Romero (11 kills) or Spencer McLachlin (12 kills, .391) putting them away.
"We just ran into a team that was unstoppable," Penn State middle Max Lipsitz said.
"I don't even know how to describe the way they played tonight," Penn State opposite Will Price said. "Their defensive effort, their offense ... of course you acknowledge Brad and his unreal night. There's nothing that we can really say other than good job to them. They were unreal."
The costumed Maples student section -- full of stormtroopers, Star Wars characters, and its usual assortment of off-beat characters -- was loving every minute of it.
They arrived with signs such as, "Fear the Shoji," and "Romero, I'll be your Juliet."
At one point, Romero, who plays with a fiery intensity, tipped the ball in for a point and ran to the crowd as if he had just pounded the ball into the floor. They loved it.
"We've talked all year about long about being in the moment," Kosty said. "The team was in the moment all the way through to the very end. We weren't thinking about winning the national championship tonight. We were thinking about playing volleyball."
Stanford, a team that hadn't won a postseason match in 13 years, completed this postseason run by winning 14 consecutive sets - its final four matches in sweeps - and outscoring its five playoff opponents (counting the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament) by a combined 15-1.
In a year in which the MPSF was its tightest in recent memory, with five of its 12 teams having a shot at the regular season title on the season's final day, Stanford played its best as the competition got tougher and separated itself from the pack in spectacular fashion.
In 1997, Stanford won its only NCAA previous title, and did it in a manner as difficult and tedious as possible, pulling off a 15-13 fifth-set victory over UCLA. This one was different. It seemed just ... well ... fun. That included the team's typical method of celebrating victories, by running through a tunnel of fans, like a kids' soccer team after an AYSO game. The only thing missing were the orange slices. Even Kosty got into the act.
Stanford became the first team since BYU in 2004 to earn the triple crown of MPSF regular season, tournament and NCAA tournament titles. But not even BYU could do that and pull off a sweep in the NCAA final.
It's been 10 years since any team (UCLA) pulled the MPSF and NCAA title double, and swept the NCAA final. For that team to be Stanford seemed unfathomable three years ago.
"It's been a fairy tale," Romero said.
Asked what the crowds were like in 2007, Romero admitted, "My mom was loud."
But to go from then to now ...
"I don't know if I would say I expected it," Kawika Shoji said. "But I knew that a lot of hard work could get us far. We preached to our team that if we worked really hard, we'll get better and good things will come."
Roderigues didn't live to see his prediction come true. He died March 19 of stomach cancer, only 11 days after Stanford rose to No. 1 in the national rankings for the first time in years.
However, Stanford kept his memory in their thoughts and played the season with "AL" sewn into the sleeves of their uniforms.
"We paid tribute to Al in the locker room," Kosty said. "He's helped us, he's been with us. He would hug every single one of them with a huge smile and big rosy cheeks."
Across the bay, in Castro Valley, Bob Hidalgo watched the match on television with a sense of pride. Roderigues was more than his cousin, he was like a brother. And Bob, more than anyone, could fully understand his brother's legacy.
"He's happy," Hidalgo said. "Everybody's happy, but he's really happy."
Hidalgo didn't have to guess what Roderigues' reaction would have been if he had been at courtside.
"He would've been extremely excited," Hidalgo said, "but he wouldn't take any credit. He'd say, `I told you guys you could do it. You just had to have faith in yourself."
Like Roderigues had faith in them. Worst to First, guys. You did it.
For that, thank you, Al.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics