Jan. 13, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. - The end of an era. That’s where the Stanford men’s volleyball program finds itself in 2010, in the eyes of coach John Kosty, as the team prepares for its season opening matches against Hawai'i, on Friday and Saturday at Maples Pavilion.
The rebuilding era is over. Now, it's time to be a contender.
When Kosty – entering his 20th season on the Stanford staff and fourth as head coach – brought forth the subject, the meaning seemed obvious. First-team All-American setter Kawika Shoji was entering his senior season. So was opposite hitter Evan Romero, the Cardinal’s all-time kills leader in the rally-scoring era.
Surely, the end of the collegiate careers of two of Stanford greats, who helped lift the Cardinal from a 3-25 season only three years ago, had prompted Kosty’s discussion. But that was only partly the case.
“The ‘era’ is getting back to national prominence,” he explained. “This senior class has put us back in the national picture, and the classes from here on out have the ability to stay there. It’s their obligation to uphold what the senior class has accomplished and continue it on.”
For the class of 2010, a five-member group that also includes starting middle blocker Garrett Werner, and reserve hitters Jason Palacios and Ed Howell, the refrain has been “Worst to First.”
They were immediately thrown into action in the ruthless Mountain Pacific Sports Federation as freshmen, struggling at times while playing in what may be the most competitive conference any collegiate sport. Indeed, 11 of the MPSF’s 12 teams are routinely ranked among the nation’s Top 15.
But Stanford has experienced a rapid rise since: to 17-11 in 2008 and 21-11 in 2009. With 16 lettermen and six starters returning – and with the NCAA final four to be played at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion – the era undoubtedly will go down as one of the most dramatic turnarounds in school history, and with the potential of one of the greatest finishes.
An end of an era indeed.
“We’ve been working really hard to get to this position,” Stanford assistant Ken Shibuya said. “And all of these guys realize it’s there for the taking.”
The 2009 season left Stanford with plenty of momentum, during a season highlighted by these accomplishments:
• Stanford won more matches in a season since its 1997 national-championship year and earned its highest season-ending ranking (No. 6) since 2003.
• Stanford won 16 consecutive sets during one stretch – its longest streak since 1995 – and beat 11 teams ranked in the nation’s final Top 15.
• The Shoji brothers, Kawika and libero Erik, became Stanford’s initial first-team All-Americans since Kevin Hansen in 2005, with freshman Erik earning national Newcomer of the Year honors while shattering the national records for digs.
• Kawika Shoji broke Hansen’s school season record for assists, and Evan Romero broke the Cardinal all-time kills mark, both for the rally-scoring era (since 2001).
But the success of 2009 only enhanced the anticipation of 2010. The reason is simple: Stanford hadn’t peaked yet. After all, the Cardinal often started three freshmen and a sophomore. And, as good as Erik Shoji was then, he’s even better now by all accounts. Combined with the evident maturation of sophomores Brad Lawson and Gus Ellis, it becomes obvious that this is a more versatile and powerful team.
“Everybody understands the game a little bit more now,” Kosty said. “They’re seasoned veterans, they make better decisions. It’s just a different team.”
Another ingredient helps too. Depth. With the return of redshirts Garrett Dobbs and Charley Henrikson on the front line, plus the added experience of sophomore setter Evan Barry, Stanford has more options to alter the course of a match and to provide rest when needed.
Kosty also has beefed up his coaching staff to include Chris McLachlin, the father of junior outside hitter Spencer McLachlin. Chris was a player-coach during the early years of the Stanford volleyball program in the mid-1960s and went on to coach Hawaii’s Punahou School to 14 state high school titles in volleyball and basketball, including one with future president Barack Obama.
The schedule also differs from past years, with only three nonconference matches and no nonconference road trips.
“The last two years, we were getting this team road tested,” Kosty said. “This year, we don’t need to be road tested. The national championship is at Maples Pavilion.”
The following is a breakdown of Stanford’s team, by position:
Kawika Shoji is simply one of the best in Stanford history and a candidate for national Player of the Year honors. Though he holds the Stanford season record for assists in the rally-scoring era (1,394), statistics hardly illustrate his talent.
“He just knows the game,” Kosty said. “He understands the flow of games. He knows who to set and who he needs to set.”
The sons of longtime Hawaii coach Dave Shoji, Kawika and Erik grew up in volleyball environment.
“He’s one of those guys who’s always played volleyball,” Kosty said. “That’s his life, he’s grown up around it, and he still likes coming into the gym every day.”
Barry, who made two starts last year, is a capable backup. And freshman Chandler Kaaa, the seventh Hawaiian on the team’s roster, provides depth.
The Cardinal returns two all-conference players, Lawson and McLachlin.
Lawson showed glimpses of being able to take over a match, as he did in the late stages of a four-set upset of No. 2 Pepperdine last year. But he arrived this season stronger and hitting harder than ever.
“I see Brad having a breakout year,” Kosty said. “I truly believe he’s ready. I think we’re going to see a much more dynamic and overpowering Brad Lawson.”
McLachlin, entering his third year as a starter, provides a versatile and savvy game, with superb ball control and the ability to convert bad plays into points.
Palacios has worked himself into the mix, and junior Ian Connolly is an explosive jumper who can provide different looks at the net.
Among the younger hitters, sophomore Dylan Kordic was limited by ankle injuries last year and is now is fully healthy; freshman Jake Kneller is a true competitor who hits with velocity; sophomore Jake Vandermeer in a Cinderella story who made the team after playing at the club level last year; and freshman Myles Muagututia is a highly-regarded recruit who is balancing football and volleyball.
Entering his fourth year as a starter, Evan Romero has led the Cardinal in kills every season and holds the school career kills record for the rally-scoring era, with 1,295.
“His curve is still going up,” Kosty said of Romero, who never played volleyball until reaching high school. “He’s going to have some big matches this year.”
Here’s where Stanford’s depth comes into play. Last year, there were few options besides Romero if things weren’t going well. This year, Dobbs can come off the bench to provide Stanford with a different look if needed. Howell, who enters the season injured, is a team leader and will be able to push his teammates upon his return.
Werner returns as a third-year starter and provides an experienced answer to the MPSF’s collection of hitting talent. Werner worked himself hard during the off-season and has evolved into a dynamic hitter.
Ellis, too, looks greatly improved. After starting 14 matches last season and spending time with the U.S. junior national team, Ellis comes in bigger and stronger and fits right in alongside Werner.
Henrikson, coming off a redshirt year, provides another option at the position and junior Max Halvorson brings offensive strength.
Erik Shoji crushed the national season record for digs as a freshman, finishing with 447 at a national-leading 3.92 clip per set. He also had seven 20-dig performances. The rest of the nation combined had only four others.
“He’s a returning first-team All-American,” Kosty said. “Now, he’s got to prove it. He’s got NCAA statistics to back up his tremendous season last year, and now he needs to go out and do better.”
Behind him is junior Jordan Inafuku, a starting-caliber player who comes in to add defense and serving prowess. Plus, he gets to dig some of the top hitters in the country every day in practice and takes on the daily challenge of getting better.
In describing Inafuku. Shibuya said, “His mind is on the team winning that national championship. Whatever it takes.”
But, then again, Shibuya added, “that describes so many of our guys.”
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics