Feb. 22, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. -
Before the men's volleyball season began, the schedule seemed as difficult as could be.
Stanford would open conference play with nine on the road, and spend a 10-match, 40-day span playing the national preseason's poll's top three teams, plus the defending NCAA champion, all while covering more than 7,600 miles.
But, somehow, Stanford not only survived, but thrived. When the marathon trip concluded, the Cardinal (11-2 overall) was No. 1.
"When you have a league as strong as this, I don't think anybody goes into a season saying they expect to be No. 1," Stanford associate head coach Ken Shibuya said. "Everybody's just trying to find their way for the first few weeks."
But Stanford clearly has found its rhythm heading into its conference home opening weekend -- Friday against No. 10 Pepperdine and Saturday against No. 6 USC at Maples Pavilion. Both matches begin at 7 p.m.
"We knew going into this season we would have a good team," Stanford head coach John Kosty said. "But as we went through that long road trip, we had our ups and downs. But to the team's credit, it came out 8-2. That has to do with the mental and physical preparation to be ready to handle such a chore."
Despite no favors from Mountain Pacific Sports Federation schedule makers - every other member of the 12-team conference has played at least three at home - Stanford still emerged with an 8-1 record, and is tied for first in the loss column with UCLA (9-1).
The Cardinal has returning first-team All-Americans Brad Lawson, at outside hitter, and Erik Shoji, at libero. But the team struggled toward the end of last season, which ended in the first round of the MPSF tournament, far short of matching its 2010 national championship.
With three sophomores - hitters Brian Cook
and Steven Irvin
, and middle blocker Eric Mochalski
- expected to play prominent roles, and with Lawson sidelined for the entire fall because of injury, nothing seemed sure.
Help may have come in the form of misfortune. On Jan. 27, Stanford dropped to 4-2 by losing decisively to Penn State in a rematch of the 2010 NCAA final. The next day, at the same Ohio State tournament, senior setter Evan Barry crumpled to the ground late in the third set against the defending champion Buckeyes with a leg injury.
The Cardinal lost the set to fall behind, 2-1, but senior replacement Dylan Kordic, in his first action at setter against a Division I team, rallied Stanford to a five-set victory. Barry may have been able to return, but with the way Kordic played and the way the team responded, Barry remained on the bench.
Barry returned for the following matches -- a pair at then-No. 1 BYU - and Stanford won both. In the coming weeks, the Cardinal would beat No. 2 UC Irvine as well as perennial Stanford killers Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State to help extend a winning streak to seven.
Barry leads the nation in assists per set (12.26), has set the Cardinal to the second-highest hitting percentage in the country (.365), and is the reigning MPSF Player of the Week. He has been described as the catalyst to the Cardinal's success.
"I'm most happy with the progress of Evan Barry," Kosty said. "He's leading the team, and making the right decisions. The record shows it and the hitting percentage shows it. We knew Evan had it in him."
The danger now is contentment. The road trip ended, the team endured and reached No. 1. But can it maintain the fire? Or will the comforts of home leave the team too relaxed or unfocused?
"That's on everybody's mind," Kosty said. "I'm sure it's on Pepperdine's and USC's minds too."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics