M. Volleyball: Matador Revenge

May 3, 2010, 12:44 a.m.
M. Volleyball: Matador Revenge
Sophomore Gus Ellis’s blocks shut down the Matador offense from the first point, giving the No. 1 Cardinal a solid lead against No. 3 Cal State Northridge in a Stanford-dominated three-set victory for the MPSF Tournament title. (KABIR SAWHNEY/The Stanford Daily)

Chants of “This is our house!” filled Maples Pavilion as the No. 1 Stanford men’s volleyball team put away the final points to clinch the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Tournament title on Saturday.

With a win over No. 3 seed Cal State Northridge (23-9), the Card (22-6) won its first MPSF Tournament since 1997. In addition, Stanford became the first MPSF team to win both the regular season and postseason tournament since Pepperdine in 2005.

“It validates us as the true winner of the toughest conference in collegiate athletics,” said senior setter Kawika Shoji. “There are no questions as to who the best MPSF team was this year.”

But the Card’s final obstacle was not an easy one – the Matadors were the only MPSF team that Stanford had not yet beaten this season, falling first in January and again in April. This time, however, proved to be a different story.

“We were just really confident this time, whereas last time our offense wasn’t as smooth, and we weren’t playing very confidently,” said junior outside hitter Spencer McLachlin. “It also helps that we were at home with 1,000 screaming fans in costume.”

“Not only did we just execute the game plan more effectively,” Kawika Shoji added, “we are just overall a much different, a much better team now than when we played them last.”

From the first point, Stanford came out swinging. McLachlin – aided by strong blocking from sophomore middle blocker Gus Ellis, sophomore outside hitter Brad Lawson and senior opposite Evan Romero – went on a 10-serve run to give the Card a 14-2 lead.

But Northridge provided a strong response to Stanford’s dominant start. Bolstered by numerous Cardinal hitting errors, the Matadors went on their own nine-point run, bringing the score within two at 20-18. But when the momentum appeared to be in the Matadors’ hands, powerful swings from Lawson and Romero reasserted Stanford’s offense. A smartly placed Kawika Shoji serve fell untouched in the center of the court to win the set, 30-24.

“We never panicked,” Kawika Shoji commented on Northridge’s strong mid-game surge. “They started making plays, and we just had to settle down again. We did a good job of being resilient.”

“It was a real testament to our determination,” McLachlin agreed. “After losing such a big lead, most teams would have lost that game, but we persevered and finished strong.”

The second set was the closest of the evening, and points went back and forth to the end. Ellis was a major presence at the net from the start, killing two quick sets in the middle, followed by a deafening solo block several plays later.

Again, Stanford struggled in the middle of the game, with an illegal back row attack, followed by a ball hit wide to the right, a missed serve and a Northridge kill on an over-passed ball. The Matadors were up three at 15-12, their widest lead of the set.

But the Card’s resilience prevailed yet again. A rare tip from Lawson went down to tie the score at 23-23, and moments later, he powered a kill through Northridge’s blockers. On an even rarer play, senior middle blocker Garrett Werner stepped in to set up Romero for the kill. After a briefly contested call, Lawson’s deep back-row kill was counted to end the set, 30-28.

The third set was all Stanford. Romero repeatedly killed balls down the line, while Lawson took advantage of the cross court. Midway through the set, Northridge appeared defeated as Stanford continued to pound kills, serve aces and stuff ball after ball. An unsuspected dump from Kawika Shoji fell to the ground, bringing the score to 28-16, followed by a Northridge overpass that was firmly rejected by Werner. A missed Northridge serve – just long – concluded the set, and match, 30-17.

The team ran to the center of the court, embracing to celebrate the victory. The match was followed by a brief awards ceremony, in which the team received MPSF champion T-shirts and a team trophy. The evening concluded with an enthusiastic rendition of “All Right Now” as the team ran through a long tunnel of costumed fans.

Romero led Stanford’s offense with 19 kills, and Lawson added another 15. Both middle blockers combined for 14 kills and only one error, with Werner hitting .750 and Ellis hitting .700. Kawika Shoji had 49 assists, bringing his season total to 1,364.

For Northridge, 7-foot-2 senior Jacek Ratajczak had 15 kills, the only Matador with kills in the double digits. Senior middle blocker Kevin McKniff contributed eight kills and an ace, and sophomore opposite Tanner Nua added another seven kills. Sophomore setter Matt Stork had 42 assists and four digs.

With the win, Stanford received the No. 1 seed in the four-team NCAA Tournament, which will be played at Maples Pavilion this Thursday and Saturday. Despite the loss, Cal State Northridge received the only at-large berth, and will be the tournament’s second seed. No. 3 Penn State (23-7) and No. 4 Ohio State (22-7) round out the pool.

But despite the sweep of Northridge and recent postseason success, the Cardinal still sees areas that can be worked on before the NCAA Tournament.

“There is always room to improve,” Kawika Shoji said. “We need to shore up some blocking assignments and continue to eliminate hitting errors. We are peaking though, which is a great thing.”

Next up for the Card is No. 4 Ohio State on Thursday at 8 p.m. in the NCAA semifinals at Maples.

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