For the first time since 1997, the No. 1 Stanford men’s volleyball team secured the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) title. The Card split two heart-wrenching five-set matches, faltering on Friday, but coming back for a crucial victory on Saturday.
Playing at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, the Card (19-6, 16-6 MPSF) took on No. 7 UCLA (16-13, 11-11) on Friday night.
In the first set, the Cardinal and Bruins battled point for point, the score remaining within two until 23-21. Despite a late ace from junior outside hitter Spencer McLachlin and a pair of kills from senior opposite Evan Romero, the Bruins pulled away to win the set 30-24.
The second and third sets each went in the Card’s favor from the opening points. McLachlin and sophomore outside hitter Brad Lawson powered Stanford to set wins of 30-23, then 30-21. However, momentum swung back in the Bruins’ favor in the fourth set with an early 4-0 UCLA lead and an eventual 30-26 victory.
UCLA proved too much for Stanford to handle in the fifth set. The Bruins jumped out to a quick 7-1 lead, and subsequent service and hitting errors prevented the Card from making a comeback. The Card dropped the set, and match, 15-7.
“Throughout the match everyone served the ball poorly, and then we came out flat in the fifth game,” said senior setter Kawika Shoji. “It was a poor effort by all of us.”
Romero, Lawson and McLachlin all had kills in the double digits, with 19, 17 and 13, respectively. Kawika Shoji had 54 assists and 14 digs, and his younger brother, sophomore libero Erik Shoji, dug another 15 balls. Stanford’s serving was subpar, with 23 errors and just one ace.
For the Bruins, senior outside hitter Garrett Muagututia led the offense and defense with 23 kills and 13 digs. Sophomore middle blocker Thomas Amberg added 13 kills on .462 hitting, and redshirt sophomore opposite Jack Polales contributed 12 kills and four blocks. Senior setter Kevin Ker recorded 61 assists.
On Saturday, the Card looked to recover from the previous night with a win over No. 8 UC-Irvine (15-14, 10-12) in its final regular season conference match.
“We decided to drop the UCLA match from our heads on Saturday morning,” Kawika Shoji said. “We had a team meeting and addressed some of our mistakes from the previous night and moved forward with a positive attitude.”
The positive attitude proved effective, with the Card winning the match in five sets, 30-21, 27-30, 30-28, 24-30, 15-6.
A pair of blocks from Lawson and sophomore middle blocker Gus Ellis combined with kills from senior middle blocker Garrett Werner, Romero and McLachlin helped the Card to an early 14-9 first-set lead. Stanford continued to outhit its opponent and won the first set, 30-21.
The teams exchanged the next three sets, with the Anteaters winning the second and fourth, and Stanford taking the third. For the second night in the row, the match came down to the short, 15-point fifth set.
But in contrast to the night before, the Cardinal took control of the fifth set from the get-go. Lawson served seven consecutive times, including two aces, to bring the Card to a 9-2 lead. Kills from Ellis, Werner and Lawson in addition to multiple Irvine errors helped Stanford take the final set, 15-6.
Romero carried the Card with 24 kills, five aces and three digs. Werner put down 10 kills for a .562 hitting percentage. Lawson added 13 kills, and McLachlin another 11. Kawika Shoji had 58 assists to bring his season total to 1207.
Junior outside hitter Jordan DuFault led the Anteaters with 27 kills, 11 digs and seven blocks. Sophomore opposite Carson Clark added 24 kills and 10 digs and junior outside hitter Cory Yoder had 14 kills to hit .414. Redshirt freshman libero Will Montgomery recorded 17 digs.
Following the loss to UCLA, Stanford shared the No. 1 spot in the MPSF with No. 2 BYU. But the Card’s victory over Irvine combined with a BYU loss on Saturday ensured Stanford’s final standing as conference champions.
“We were ecstatic,” Kawika Shoji said. “We were literally jumping for joy right after the match. It was an unbelievable moment.”
The No. 1 seed ensures that Stanford will have home-court advantage throughout the postseason. But despite its top seed in the MPSF Tournament, the Cardinal recognizes how difficult its postseason road may be.
“I don’t think anything is secure,” Kawika Shoji said. “The league is too good from top to bottom to predict who will win the tournament. I just know that we will prepare the best we can for a very good [UC-Irvine] team, and we will go into the first-round game very confident.”
Up next for the Card is the first round of the MPSF Tournament. Stanford will have a rematch against UC-Irvine on Saturday at Maples Pavilion at 7 p.m.