Jan. 7, 2009
STANFORD, Calif. -
As dramatic as the turnaround was for the Stanford men's volleyball team in 2008, it may have been only a prelude.
Stanford improved from 3-25 to 17-11 in one year and returns five of its six starters and 15 of its 17 lettermen. Add outside hitter Brad Lawson, the nation's No. 1 recruit, and a top recruiting class to a junior-laden squad that features All-America setter Kawika Shoji, and the stage is set for a far more ambitious 2009.
Fresh off a No. 9 national ranking, its highest finish in five years, Stanford returns to the national picture as it battles a gauntlet of foes from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the nation's most formidable conference. Eleven of its 12 teams were ranked among the nation's final top 20, holding five spots among the nation's top six.
In such a competitive environment, Stanford hopes to return to the form that brought it a national championship in 1997 and made it one of the nation's elite for most of the 1990s. Actually, the Cardinal doesn't just hope it happens, it expects it.
"I see this team building from our fourth-place league finish," third-year head coach and 19-year staff veteran John Kosty said. "I believe that we have the ability to host an MPSF playoff match and I'm looking forward to getting back into the national championship hunt."
The genesis of Stanford's rise did not take place in 2008, but rather during a 2007 season that Kosty refuses to acknowledge as dismal, poor, or describe with any other negative description.
"We started three freshmen," Kosty said of Shoji, Evan Romero and Garrett Werner. "We knew we were building for the future. And, ultimately, that season could win a national championship for us, this year or next, because we had the ability to play those guys."
Though Stanford continues to present a fairly young lineup - only four seniors are on the 20-player roster - the Cardinal has plenty of experience. For instance, the starting lineup that took the floor in a Feb. 23 sweep at No. 1 BYU last season included three sophomores and a freshman, with a freshman libero.
The Cardinal already has begun to prove itself against the best the conference and the country have to offer. Now, it feels, it's time to take the next step.
Here's where the team stands, position by position:
The Cardinal not only has junior Kawika Shoji, but a deep lineup at this spot that includes senior Miki Groppi (11.19 assists per game in 2008) and freshman Evan Barry.
Shoji, one of six Stanford players from Honolulu, had a breakthrough sophomore season, earning second-team AVCA All-America honors after splitting time between outside hitter and setter as a freshman. He had 990 assists and averaged 10.31 per game.
"Kawika's one of the best setters in the country," Kosty said. "It's his knowledge of the game, his competitiveness on the court, and the respect from his pears which makes him such a successful player"
Stanford has improved its passing and now appears to have the firepower to match, with sophomore Spencer McLachlin and freshman Lawson.
The 6-foot-7 McLachlin, the 2007 Volleyball Magazine national high school player of the year, "has the potential to have an All-America season," Kosty said.
And in the 6-7 Lawson, Stanford has a big attacking player with great athletic ability and exceptional passing and ball-handling skills. The Hawaiian also can fall back on deep international experience with the U.S. national youth team.
Stanford now has a solid combination of size and power at the outside hitting positions, something that is needed to compete at the highest levels of the MPSF.
Sophomore Ian Connolly, who had an outstanding fall, junior Jason Palacios, a regular in the rotation, and freshman Dylan Kordic are expected to be key contributors as well.
Kosty calls the nucleus at this position, "the best we've had in a decade."
Garrett Werner, a 6-7 junior, and Brandon Williams, 6-6 senior, are the cornerstones, having combined to play 329 games over the past two years and finish 1-2 on the team in total blocks each season. Werner also was the team's most efficient hitter last season, at 46 percent.
Freshman Gus Ellis, a starter for the U.S. national youth team, may be the top middle blocker recruit in the country and has been impressive in the fall. Senior Cameron Christoffers, who has started in the past, will bring veteran leadership and consistency to the floor and sophomore Max Halvorson is continuing to develop into a solid player. Another sophomore, Charley Henrikson, will be redshirting.
Evan Romero, a 6-7 junior, has been good, but now seems on the verge of great.
"I'm expecting Evan Romero to have a breakout season this year," Kosty said. "He has the ability to be a dominating player in the MPSF and in the nation."
Romero has led the Cardinal in kills since his freshman year and his value was reflected in his 426 kills last season, 30 percent of the team's total. He also played in 96 of a possible 98 games, tying him with Shoji for the team lead.
Ed Howell, a 6-7 junior, is a veteran workhorse who should make an impact this season, while sophomore Garrett Dobbs will redshirt.
The Cardinal has three top-flight liberos: Jordan Inafuku, Jarod Keller and freshman Erik Shoji. Two have U.S. High Performance national-team backgrounds and another is an experienced senior, creating a competition that is "making the position better and the team better," Kosty said.
Inafuku, a sophomore, stepped right in as the team's top libero last season, playing 88 games and leading the team in digs (192). But fellow Hawaiian Erik Shoji, brother of Kawika and son of longtime University of Hawai'i women's coach Dave Shoji, has arrived with impressive credentials.
Shoji was recognized as the Best Digger and Best Libero at the 2007 FIVB world youth championships, the only U.S. player ever to receive those honors. He also was regarded as the nation's best defensive player in the '08 recruiting class.
Keller is coming back from a knee injury and is expected to quickly put himself back into the mix.
With the experience and talent level on the 2009 team, Kosty is excited entering the season.
"Top to bottom, this is one of the most competitive and deep teams we've had," Kosty said. "You'd have to go back a long ways to find an equivalent. We now also have a core of veterans that have gone to battle in the MPSF. With that experience, we know what it takes to win in the league."
The coaching staff also is very aware that the MPSF is one of the toughest leagues in all of collegiate sport, and most of the teams have improved from a season ago. It is realistic that an MPSF team could have a losing conference record and be one of the top 10 teams in the nation.
To prepare his team, Kosty has set an ambitious schedule in which the Cardinal travels to the Midwest to play 2008 NCAA semifinalist Ohio State and Ball State, and will play host to Lewis, the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association favorite.
The schedule will be demanding, with a large portion of its first-half schedule on the road and only two home weekends in the first two months. The tone will be set at UC Santa Barbara's Elephant Bar Invitational Jan. 9-10, with a first-round match against three-time national champion BYU. The Cardinal opens MPSF play at Pacific on Jan. 14 and after the road trip to the Midwest will charge into the heart of the conference season.
Down the stretch, fans will get a good dose of men's volleyball as the Cardinal will play 11 of its last 13 regular-season matches at home.
"One of the keys to this season is to survive the first half of the season," Kosty said. "As we get into March, we'll set ourselves up for a nice run at home and build into a peak for the MPSF tournament and the NCAA Championships. I think our schedule is fantastic for this purpose."
The building blocks appear in place, and the 2008 turnaround was certainly impressive. But the best seems yet to come.