Jan. 12, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. -
The season was a fairytale. How else can 2010 be described for the Stanford men’s volleyball team?
It was a season in which the Cardinal won everything there was to win – conference regular season and tournament titles and its first NCAA crown since 1997. And Stanford did so in such a dominating fashion that the championship final was less a match than a celebration.
The citizens of “Kostyville,” the kingdom of students that regularly arrived in costume, certainly added to the atmosphere, whether replete in “Star Wars” gear, or something as simple as a hospital gown.
All of it – the winning and the cheering and the craziness – seemed to mesh perfectly with the intensity of senior All-American opposite Evan Romero and the precision of AVCA National Player of the Year Kawika Shoji at setter.
Four consecutive sweeps to end the postseason, topped with Brad Lawson’s single-handed thrashing of Penn State before a record-crowd of 6,635 at Maples Pavilion, put a glow on Stanford volleyball that may never die out.
But fifth-year coach John Kosty, who took the program from “Worst to First” – a 3-25 season in 2007 to 24-6 and a national title in four years – is ready to distance the current squad from last year’s, as the No. 4 Cardinal opens its conference season Friday (7:30 p.m.) at Maples Pavilion against No. 2 BYU.
The Cardinal lost three starters to graduation – Kawika Shoji, Romero, and middle Garrett Werner – and now must integrate seven freshmen as well as new starters.
Evan Barry, who backed up Shoji the past two years, moves into the setter position, while several others compete for open spots in the middle or outside.
“The biggest thing is, we don’t have Kawika, we don’t have Evan Romero
, we don’t have Garrett Werner
,” Kosty said. “We’re not looking to replace anybody, we’re looking to improve our team. And Evan Barry
is not looking to replace Kawika Shoji
. Nobody can. He’s not filling anybody’s shoes except for his.
“This is our identity. We didn’t lose an identity. That was the identity of the last team. We’re developing the identity of this team.”
So what can Stanford do to top the improbable “Worst to First” saga? How about “First to First?”
That was the new mantra adopted by members of the 2011 team when the practice first officially convened in October.
“The original challenge is still brand new, win a national championship,” Stanford senior Jordan Inafuku said. “But it's even more of a challenge to try to defend something. You don't get that opportunity very often. So, we're not going to be hard-pressed to find some motivation.”
The following is a breakdown of Stanford’s team, by position:
Make no mistake, this is Barry’s team. The junior watched and waited patiently for his opportunity, which became available with the graduation of Shoji. Barry played in only nine matches his first two seasons, with a total of three starts, including only one in 2010. However, there was no denying that it was his time.
“He can set a lot of different sets well,” assistant coach Ken Shibuya said. “He has very good hands. He’ll give us a lot of good defense, and he’s turning into a pretty good server.”
Barry sharpened his game by qualifying for the junior world beach championships last summer in Turkey, where he and his partner reached the quarterfinals.
“He set an offense against the best team in the nation last spring, and he did well,” Kosty said. “So, we know he has the ability.”
Behind Barry is 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Chandler Ka’a’a, who brings a physical presence to the position, and junior Dylan Kordic, a converted hitter.
As devastating as Lawson is as a hitter – the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the year had 24 kills and hit .821 in the NCAA final – what really makes the team go is his passing. In particular, the passing triumvirate of Lawson, McLachlin, and libero Erik Shoji sets the offense in motion.
“Our ball control is pretty special,” Shibuya said. “Everything in our offense runs off that. If we didn’t have the passers we do, or the defense we do, we’d be pretty limited in what we can run as an offense.”
Lawson, now a junior, set a Stanford single-season record for kills (522) in the same match in which the first-team All-America pounded Penn State.
“That performance was pretty special,” Shibuya said. “We don’t expect him to play like that every night. But, with that being said, we know what kind of player he is.”
McLachlin, a senior, has been largely an unsung hero since he first stepped into the starting lineup as a freshman. His passing and defense were missed when injury kept him out of four matches last season and Stanford lost two of them.
“He was the glue that held the team together,” Kosty said. “He was the guy nobody paid attention to and paid the price for it. This year, I believe Spencer’s ready to truly step into his new role of being The Guy on this team.”
Romero was a four-year fixture as a right-side hitter, but it’s quite possible that Stanford will not have a true opposite, but rather a deep collection of hitters that can play anywhere. That bunch includes senior Ian Connolly, redshirt junior Garrett Dobbs, junior Jake Vandermeer, sophomore Jake Kneller, and freshmen Brian Cook, Steven Irvin, Eric Mochalski, and Daniel Tublin.
Kneller and Cook started up front in Stanford’s season opener, with Mochalski and Irvin working themselves into regular rotations. Indeed, Stanford’s freshman trio of Cook, Mochalski – both members of the U.S. junior national team -- and former Southern California high school star Irvin, are expected to have a major impact this year.
Gus Ellis, now a junior, has proven to be superb blocker, with three nine-block performances last season. But with Werner graduated, his linemate could be Charley Henrikson, or the versatile Mochalski.
“This year, it’s his opportunity to rise in the ranks of MPSF middle blockers and truly become a standout in our league,” Kosty said.
Henrikson may have the highest vertical leap on the team, which makes the 6-7 redshirt junior a dangerous offensive weapon. Senior Max Halvorson and freshman Denny Falls also help comprise strong depth at the position.
Two-time first-team All-American Erik Shoji, now a junior, has continually proven himself to be the best defender in the college game.
“He gets better and better,” Shibuya said. “And as good as he is, his hunger to get better does not change.”
“He’s one of the best liberos in the country,” Kosty said. “How do you get better than that? You keep moving the bar up.”
Inafuku, a senior, is an outstanding libero as well. Though playing time at that position is hard to come by, Inafuku has found his niche as a strong leader, and as a serving specialist, which lets him remain in the match to strengthen the defense.
Stanford also has two freshmen at the position – Scott Sakaida and Grant Delgado, the son of former Stanford soccer standout Greg Delgado.
“It’s a completely new season,” Kosty said. “Last year’s team was developed over four years. This is another year. What’s going to be this team’s identity?”
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics