Oct. 16, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - Stanford coach John Kosty stepped into Ford Center to conduct the first official men's volleyball practice of the season on Monday, but his players had beat him to it.
The gym already echoed with the sound of volleyballs crashing to the floor and off the walls as the Cardinal began what will be a 6½ month odyssey that will test strength and character. It will offer untold success and disappointment, but just how many shares of each will be determined as the season unfolds.
Last year's season ended with a crushing defeat, in a fifth-set tiebreaker to UC Irvine in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation final. A victory would have sent Stanford into the NCAA final four. Instead, the loss ended one of the finest seasons in school history, one with a 22-7 overall record and final ranking of No. 3.
As the players served and passed together in preparation, Kosty walked in, closed the doors, and instructed his players that the purpose of this practice was to get better - the distinction being not to concentrate on winning points during scrimmages, but rather on improving technique.
Kosty then instructed players to get out their journals - everyone must bring a journal and pen to each training session - while junior outside hitter Brian Cook provided a "Thought of the Day."
Cook opened his journal and turned it to his team. Written in giant letters across both pages was "SWAG."
According to dictionary.com, the top definition for the noun "swag," is "a suspended wreath, garland, or drapery." But those in sports know "swag" really means to carry oneself with confidence - to act with a certain "coolness" and "charisma."
"Muhammad Ali said `I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was,'" Cook said. "None of us are the greatest of all-time, but if we come in with the attitude that we can be the best, or be the best with a certain skill set, that will be beneficial for the team."
Asked by Kosty for an example of "swag," Cook recalled a moment at UC Irvine, when he crashed into the bleachers while pursuing a ball and emerged with a gash in his side, but said not a word and continued to play hard.
"If I'm a young player, who should I look to to show us `swag' every day," Kosty asked.
Cook responded by naming the team's only senior - a hard-hitter who inspires and always stays positive: Jake Kneller.
With that, Kosty gathered the team, explained the day's training session and let them loose.
"OK, let's get after it," he said.
The 2013 Cardinal has a decidedly different look. Gone are All-Americans Erik Shoji, Brad Lawson, and Evan Barry, and four-year starter Gus Ellis. This also marks the first season since 2007 without Charley Henrikson, who experienced a Stanford-record 103 victories in his five-season career. Kneller now is the only player remaining from the 2010 national-championship team.
However, a strong freshman class will have an immediate opportunity to make an imprint. That was evident during a scrimmage when freshman setters James Shaw and Joe Ctvrtlik were leading their respective teams.
During a stretching and warmup period, Kosty dumped out a box of footballs and the players began playing catch while crouched on their knees. The shoulder motion of throwing a football is similar to the motion of hitting a volleyball.
While watching one wobbly pass from sophomore Matt Aiello, associate head coach and Washington Redskins fan Ken Shibuya remarked, "I haven't seen a ball thrown like that since Billy Kilmer."
To which those within earshot responded with vacant looks on their faces.
Before the team convened for high-speed scrimmage, Kosty reminded his players of the season-ending MPSF tournament final loss - which was decided by a 15-12 result in the fifth game.
"That's how important every point is," Kosty said.
Once the competition began, it heated up quickly. The constant whirl of motion, the timing, the dives, the hits, the digs. And the smiles, the fist pumps. The essence of volleyball all came down to this - playing the game at a high level while challenged by some of your closest friends.
Smiles and swag. The 2013 season was off to a good start.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics