Nov. 16, 1999
2000 Stanford Volleyball Outlook
New players, a change in venue and a dramatic rule change will make the 2000 men's volleyball season one of the most intriguing ever.
The Cardinal will enter the season with six of the most talented freshmen in the country, making up one of the strongest and most promising freshmen classes in Cardinal history. Curt Toppel leads the incoming class, which includes Paul Bocage, William Curtis, Chris Lewis, Kyle Strache and Billy Strickland. Toppel was considered by many to be the top high school recruits last season after a standout career at Loyola High School in Los Angeles.
"By all counts it is a great freshmen class. It's a big class that goes deep with good quality. Some schools would of liked to get just one of these players. So to have gotten all six we feel great about that," Nieves said. "But overall one of the keys to this class was that it gave us what we needed."
Nieves says what the team truly needed was more depth at the middle blocker and outside hitter position to give the team depth behind key returnees, Josh Palacios, Marcus Skacel and Brett Youngberg. Not only did Nieves and the coaching staff solve its problem for this season, but for the future as well.
"I hope and expect the freshman class to make a big impact this season and for our returning players to reach a higher level, so that we can have a successful season," Nieves said.
This year's team will also have the opportunity to make the move from the smaller Burhnam Pavilion to the 7, 319 seat Maples Pavilion. The Cardinal will play all 11 home matches at Maples Pavilion, which include matches against traditional Mountain Pacific Sports Federation powerhouses BYU (Thur., Jan. 19), UCLA (Thur., Jan. 22) and Pepperdine (Thur., Feb. 17)
Stanford, along with the rest of collegiate volleyball, will have to adjust to the addition of the Libero, a position adopted from international volleyball for the 2000 season. The Libero is a designated player that can substitute freely into the match and will be used primarily as a passing specialist.
Nieves believes that the Cardinal have the winning combination for this season and will rebound after a tough 1999 season. The Cardinal struggled through a 10-12 season, placing fifth in the MPSF standings with a 7-12 record, and out of the final national rankings for the first time in 13 seasons.
Here is a position by position look at the Cardinal:
Entering the 2000 season, the Cardinal are probably the most experienced at the setter position. Stanford returns juniors Brad Griffith and Josh Lukens, who split time at the setter position a year ago. Griffith played in 70 games at setter last season for the Cardinal, recording 688 assists (9.83 apg), 66 digs and 37 kills. Against Hawaii, Griffith recorded a double-double with 89 assists and 10 digs to go along with a season-high seven block assists.
As for Lukens, he gained added experience during the summer of his freshman and sophomore seasons playing for the U.S. Junior National Team. With the Cardinal, Lukens played in 45 games dishing-out a team leading 713 assists to go along with 65 digs and 25 kills. Lukens had three double-doubles on the season, which included his best performance of the season at San Diego State when he recorded 99 assists and 13 digs in Stanford's three games-to-one victory over the Aztecs.
"We've been young at that position over the past two years but know with Brad and Josh becoming upperclassmen, we're looking for them to step up in terms of leadership, maturity and their level of play," Nieves said. "So it's a position that I think we are really solid at. We have good depth and we have proven players that can play the position."
Along with the middle blocker position, outside hitter is somewhat of an unknown quantity for the Cardinal this season, with only one player, Josh Palacios, returning who saw extensive minutes last season. Palacios saw action in 75 games last season, tallying 147 kills with 40 assists and a team leading 143 digs.
Palacios, who Nieves says has a knack for getting to the ball, recorded his lone double-double of the season, 12 kills and 15 assists, in the Cardinal's five-game loss to Pacific last March.
"He is a real experienced player and there is no doubt that the strength of his game is his ability to pass, serve and play defense," Nieves said. "His ball control and his ability to be in the right place at the right time is also a great attribute."
Even though he redshirted the 1997 season because of injury, Palacios is the last remaining link to the national championship team, giving the Cardinal a player who can show a young group of players what it takes.
Leading the group of up-and-coming outside hitters is sophomore Marcus Skacel. Skacel played in 69 games last season, but Nieves looks for him to take on a much more significant role with a season already under his belt.
"As a freshman, Marcus' strengths were his ball control, defense and passing," Nieves said. "He made nice improvements in his net game and we are hoping that as a sophomore he will take his hitting and blocking to the next level. That will allow him to do more for the team when he is on the court."
Despite limited action in the early part of his freshman season, Skacel saw a more prominent role in the final nine matches of the season. During those nine matches, Skacel recorded 10 or more kills in six matches, with double-doubles in matches versus San Diego State, 11 kills and 13 digs, and UC Irvine, 14 kills and 12 digs. In a five game loss to Pacific, Skacel recorded a career-high 15 kills to help him reach a 1.42 kills per game average for the season.
A redshirt freshman, Seth Ring gained valuable experience during his year in which he strictly practiced with the team and Nieves says he made tremendous strides towards making an impact on this year's team.
"Seth comes into the season as a redshirt freshman and he made a lot of improvements in his game last season," Nieves said. "He never played high school or club volleyball, so he came in last season to a real new situation, but he soaked things in and took advantage of the year of practice. He has really become comfortable with volleyball at this level."
Ring was selected to Volleyball Monthly's Fab 50 coming out of Redmond High School in Bend, Ore. despite the fact the school did not sponsor varsity volleyball. But Ring had played in several recreational and community volleyball leagues and attended Stanford volleyball camps in the summer.
"It's truly remarkable that he's where he is at with the limited volleyball background that he has," Nieves said. "One thing that encouraged us is that his older brother was in a similar situation growing up and he is now on the U.S. National team."
Injury may hamper the depth of the outside hitter position for the Cardinal this season, due to an injury junior Curtis Graham is still recovering from. An injury to his upper leg, which he suffered during an intramural soccer game, has kept him from reaching his full potential to this point. But Nieves is confident that if the 6-4, Graham can work through the injury will make an impact on the 2000 team.
Three freshman round out the outside hitter position. The group, which includes William Curtis, Chris Lewis and Billy Strickland, is part of the most highly touted freshman class to arrive on The Farm in years.
Curtis began his career at Culver City High School before finishing it at Harvard-Westlake High School in Whittier, Calif. The 6-6, Curtis was a two-time All-Mission League selection (1998, 1999) and earned CIF Southern California All-Section honors last season. He will add athleticism and tremendous blocking potential to the team this season according to Nieves.
"He has a great jump that seems effortless and is very quick around the net to go with his great blocking instincts," Nieves said. "He has a natural feel for blocking which is an added bonus because blocking is one of the hardest areas to coach at a high level. Once he's able to add some power to his game he will become a force at the outside hitter position."
At 6-10, Strickland adds height to the Cardinal at outside hitter. Strickland played for the Youth National Team this past summer after a successful career at Harvard-Westlake High School. A 1997 High School All-American, Strickland also earned Daily News All-Area consideration, 1999 All-CIF honors, and first team All-Mission League in 1997 and 1999. But one of the things that impresses Nieves the most is the fact that Strickland has such great ball control.
"Even at 6-10, one of the best parts of his game is his passing and ability to control the ball. When you think of a big outside hitter that is not what comes to mind," Nieves said. "He split his athletic time between water polo and volleyball in high school. So we're optimistic that as he becomes a full-time volleyball player his game will take off."
But as he develops strength, Nieves believes that Strickland will also become a great attacker, as well. He is already a good hitter but the strength will take him to another level.
Lewis continues the trend of two sport athletes on the Stanford men's volleyball team. This past fall, Lewis was a backup quarterback for the Stanford football team after being one of the most recruited athletes in the nation coming out of Long Beach Poly High School.
An All-League performer in volleyball, Lewis was named the 1998 National High School Football Player of the Year and was a finalist for the Franklin D. Watkins Award as the top Afro-American student-athlete in the country his junior and senior year.
"Physically he has the tools to play this position as well as anybody that has come out of high school in the past five years," Nieves said. "As would be expected for a player who is a quarterback, he has a great arm and a strong shoulder which allows him to generate a lot of power. And that is a big part of men's volleyball, being able to attack the ball."
For this season, however, Nieves still doesn't now how much time Lewis will be able to devote to volleyball because of his commitment to football.
"There is no doubt that there are conflicts between the two sports' schedules, so the priorities will reflect that in terms of training time," Nieves said. "His role as a freshman is to be determined. He has the physical ability to play a role immediately."
The Cardinal will begin the season with four new players at the middle blocker position to go along with the position's lone returnee Brett Youngberg. A junior, Youngberg played in a career-high 82 games last season, recording career-highs in all statistical categories. Youngberg posted double-digit kills 16 times last season, averaging 3.49 kills per game, on his way to 286 kills for the season.
"Brett has a full year of experience starting and brings to the team some versatility at the position," Nieves said. "We were able to use him as an attacker out of the back row as well as the front row. Which is a nice ability for a middle blocker to have."
Youngberg will be flanked by freshman Curt Toppel, a player Nieves believes is the top player entering the college game this year. After earning two Mission League Most Valuable Player awards at Loyola High School, Toppel was named to Volleyball Magazine's Fab 50 list and competed for the U.S. Junior National Team.
"Toppel had a lot of success in high school and played on the Junior National Team the past two summers, which means he played up in age because of his abilities," Nieves said. "He has the ability to make an immediate impact. Everybody expects him to be on the court in some capacity a lot for us this season. We may look at putting him in different areas of the court because he is so versatile."
Nieves also pointed out that Toppel is physically more mature then most freshmen entering college. That maturity makes Toppel a stronger, more explosive player than his counterparts.
Along with Toppel, redshirt freshman Jon Palacios, Paul Bocage and Kyle Strache will also have an opportunity to contribute to this year's team. Palacios redshirted last season after being named the 1998 CIF Scholar Athlete of the Year for volleyball and 1998 Daily Breeze First Team All-Area selection. In 1996, Palacios led Mira Costa High School to the California state and national volleyball championship.
"As a middle blocker, Jon comes into the season as our best digging middle blocker," Nieves said. "He's a short middle blocker, but he is able to compensate for that with his quickness, conditioning and mental approach to the game. He holds his own hitting against the opponent."
Strache graduated from Malibu High School where he was a two-time All-CIF second team selection in volleyball. Also a two-time Frontier League selection, Strache earned a total of 15 varsity letters in four years playing basketball, water polo and track and field. Nieves says that his athleticism allows him to move quickly along the net which allows him to block the ball effectively.
"Kyle is coming off the best summer of volleyball in his career. He has been a starter on the youth national team, which has been the highlight of his volleyball career thus far," Nieves said. "He also joins the team with time at outside hitter which gives us the ability to possibly move him around."
The final piece to the puzzle is Bocage. Bocage, who hails from Princeton, New Jersey, is another player who brings a wealth of athletic ability to the team after earning MSG/Tri-State Athlete of the Month honors at Saint Joseph's High School. Although Bocage has had little time on the floor in organized matches, Nieves feels that he has the potential to turn into a force for the Cardinal at middle blocker.
"He is a nice volleyball athlete with a great standing reach to go along with being possibly the best jumper on the team," Nieves said. "But Paul is another player who hasn't had a chance to focus completely on volleyball because he played a lot of basketball in high school."