Jan. 11, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. -
There are certain milestones and records that Stanford players and coaches could achieve in the 2012 men’s volleyball season, which opens Wednesday at Pacific:
• Senior libero Erik Shoji is on track to become Stanford’s first-ever four-time first-team All-American.
• John Kosty is 16 away from his 100th coaching victory, which would put him in a club with Ruben Nieves and Fred Sturm in Stanford annals.
• Brad Lawson is closing in on Evan Romero’s Stanford record for career kills in the rally-scoring era.
• Gus Ellis is on the verge of another Cardinal career rally-scoring record, for total blocks.
• And Stanford’s seven-member senior class needs 18 victories to surpass the class of 2011 as the winningest in school history.
But even if all of those are achieved, Stanford’s season may well be regarded as a disappointment if it didn’t contend for conference and national titles.
The mighty Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, which placed 11 of its 12 teams in the AVCA preseason Top 15, appears wide open. And Stanford, with six of its seven starters returning, is expected to be in the running.
Shoji, Lawson, and Ellis all started on Stanford’s 2010 national championship team. Senior setter Evan Barry, in his second season as a starter, has expanded his game. And the Cardinal sophomore triumvirate of Brian Cook, Steven Irvin, and Eric Mochalski has grown in confidence and experience after a summer helping the United States to its’ best-ever finish (fourth) at the FIVB Volleyball Men's Junior World Championships.
Stanford finished 19-9 overall last season and was third in the MPSF standings. Though the Cardinal lost to Long Beach State in a five-set thriller in the first-round of the MPSF Tournament, its body of work appeared strong enough to demand inclusion as the only at-large team in the four-team NCAA Tournament.
However, a UC Santa Barbara upset of top-ranked USC in the MPSF final prevented the Cardinal from receiving the bid. Still, Stanford has too much talent that has had too much success to figure on sitting it out again.
Stanford opens the season ranked No. 4 by both the AVCA and Volleyball Magazine, and was expected to place third in the MPSF in a poll of conference coaches. But for the Cardinal to succeed, it will rely on a class that has never failed to reach the postseason or host a playoff match, or finish any worse than No. 7 in the final rankings.
“The senior leadership we have this year is incredible,” Kosty said. “They’ve seen it all. They have a great insight of what we need to do this year to be successful.”
The only departure among last year’s starters was Spencer McLachlin, a do-it-all talent, who could defend, pass, and hit with equal proficiency, and finally was rewarded with his first All-America selection.
But even one difference has the potential of changing the entire dynamic. Roles change, responsibilities change. It’s how the team adapts to those new responsibilities that will determine a great deal.
“This program, this team, is always evolving,” Kosty said. “We can lose one person and the following season can be totally different. The 2010 team was far different than the 2011 team, and the 2011 team is going to be far different than 2012.”
The following is a breakdown of Stanford’s team, position by position:
“Brad Lawson is and will be the spotlight of the team, followed very closely by Erik Shoji,” Kosty said.
A two-time first-team All-America and 2010 MPSF Player of the Year, Lawson carries a well-deserved reputation in collegiate volleyball circles. On his resume is perhaps the greatest performance by an outside hitter in NCAA finals history, when he had 24 kills in 28 attacks and only one error in a 2010 title-match sweep of Penn State.
Lawson, a four-year starter, has 1,377 career kills -- 404 away from Romero’s record of 1,781. More than that, he has the passing ability to trigger the Cardinal attack and is among the school’s all-times leaders in digs, as well.
Kosty likes the depth at this position, especially with the emergence of Cook and Irvin in the fall, after their international experience. Both sophomores appear far more aggressive in their swings and more comfortable in being featured in the Cardinal attack.
In a pair of exhibition victories over Canada’s Thompson Rivers University, Cook and Irvin combined for 48 kills and a .323 hitting percentage.
“We’ve got a great core of outside hitters,” Kosty said. “We’re deep at this position and it gives us a lot of options.”
Among them are junior Jake Kneller, a high-intensity hitter who’s capable of playing at high level, senior Jake Vandermeer, a frequent serving option, 6-foot-7 sophomore Daniel Tublin and Eric Arriaga, who made the team as a rare freshman walk-on.
The crew of Ellis, Mochalski, senior Charley Henrikson, sophomore Denny Falls, and freshmen Matt Aiello, Spencer Haly, and Sean Kemper is “one of the strongest we’ve had in a very long time,” Kosty said.
Ellis is 78 blocks from matching the career total of his 2010 championship blocking partner Garrett Werner and enters the season healthier than he’s been in years. Ellis also provides a hitting alternative, as does Mochalski.
As a freshman, Mochalski hit for a school season hitting percentage record of .451. Where do you go from there? Five hundred? Kosty said that’s not outside of the realm of possibility.
“We’re looking for him to have a breakout year,” Kosty said.
Henrikson, besides being 6-7, may have the highest vertical leap on the team, in addition to adding some fifth-year senior savvy from his five years with the program.
Falls provided glimpses of his ability last season with some match-changing plays. This year, the sophomore is expected to be a regular part of the rotation and another addition to the group of impact players from the class of 2014.
As for the freshmen Aiello, Haly, and Kemper, “they have improved and exceeded expectations perhaps more than any freshman class we’ve ever had,” Kosty said. “They’re fitting in well and we’re happy with their progress.”
With a year of starting experience and three seasons in the program, “this is his time to shine,” Kosty said. “I’ve totally seen a difference in Evan Barry.”
Barry, perhaps along with Mochalski, seems to be the best bet to emerge on to the national scene.
Besides his understanding of the game and greater consistency, associate head coach Ken Shibuya sees even more.
“He’s a more complete player,” Shibuya said. “Hitting, blocking, decision-making. He’s taken himself to another level.”
Dylan Kordic, now in his second season at the position after converting from hitter, and 6-4 junior Chandler Kaaa, another setter with offensive skills, are capable backups.
The position begins and ends in the collegiate game with Shoji. He’s already established Stanford’s career record for digs in any era (1,098) and his defense is so complete that the Cardinal can commit extra players to the attack.
“His true impact will not be realized until next season,” Kosty said. “That’s how much he means to this program.”
Sophomores Grant Delgado and Scott Sakaida are continuing to battle for the backup spot, or to earn time as a defensive specialist.
“They can only get better as they continue to work with Erik,” Kosty said.
Overall, without an obvious dominant team in the conference, Stanford will be in a position of not knowing which matches are the biggest until after the season. Such was the case last season when two early-season victories over BYU had the potential to shoot the Cardinal into the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve got to stay injury free,” Kosty said. “Nobody in this league is deep enough to win it outright if it has to deal with injuries to key players. And we’ve got to stay consistent. We can’t take a night off.”
Stanford has a bizarre conference schedule that begins with nine road matches, followed with 11 of 13 at home to finish off the regular season.
“We’re going to have to continually improve,” Kosty said, “so we hit our highest point at the end.”
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics