By Jacob Jaffe
Just in case you weren’t one of the 6,635 people at Maples Pavilion, and you weren’t one of many more who watched ESPN2, and you aren’t one who follows Stanford sports in any form or you were out of the country and in a coma, the Stanford men’s volleyball team won the national title on Saturday.
For the approximately zero of you that fall into the aforementioned category, this news probably means as much to you as Stan Van Gundy’s opinion on who should coach the Bulls.
For everyone else, this should be a big deal, if not a surprise. As Mike Lazarus wrote yesterday, Stanford did not need this win to have a successful year. But the Stanford men’s volleyball program needed a win.
The “Worst to First” slogan has been well-documented, but the exposure cannot diminish what a remarkable achievement this turnaround has been. Just three years ago, Stanford was 3-25 with a 2-18 conference record. Now Stanford is not only on top of the collegiate volleyball world, but it cannot even be challenged. The Cardinal won the MPSF regular season title, MPSF Tournament and NCAA Tournament. That trio of accomplishments had not been done in six years.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface of the team’s success, though. In what was supposed to be its roughest stretch of the season, the Cardinal swept its final four opponents. In that four-match period, which encompassed the semifinals and finals of the MPSF Tournament and NCAA Tournament, Stanford gave up fewer than 24 points per set. The Cardinal actually got better each game, giving up 83 total points to Hawaii, 69 to Cal State Northridge, 68 to Ohio State and only 63 to Penn State in the title match. This season would be historic even without the enormous turnaround or the fact that Stanford hadn’t even won a single postseason match in 13 years.
What makes this season and this program even more remarkable, though, is that this success came despite – or perhaps in response to – a terrible tragedy in the death of longtime assistant coach Al Roderigues. Roderigues was one of the greatest ambassadors for volleyball, running camps for children and coaching a number of high school and college teams. His impact was especially felt at Stanford, where he started coaching in 1992. It was Roderigues who instilled the “Worst to First” mentality during the 2007 season, and he was one of the biggest reasons why the Cardinal program made this mentality a reality.
Roderigues passed away on March 19 from stomach cancer, but his impact did not end there by any means. This could be seen in the “AL” sewn on every player’s uniform, but even more it could be seen in the way the players and coaches talked about him. Only minutes after reaching the peak of NCAA volleyball, players and coaches were describing how much the title would mean to Roderigues, and the sincerity was evident in all of them. This man did so much for Stanford volleyball, and the fact that the team could achieve so much less than two months after he died speaks volumes about the character of this program.
With this history and tragedy against it, Stanford’s success is even more incredible, and not nearly enough credit has been given to head coach John Kosty. Kosty has been a part of Stanford volleyball for two decades, and his first year as head coach was that infamous 2007 season. This kind of turnaround could never happen without stellar recruiting, which Stanford has certainly had, but it requires even more coaching, and the many accolades for Stanford are a testament to Kosty and his whole staff. After the championship match, Kosty was quick to credit the entire staff, from trainers and volunteers to assistants, and this speaks to the unity of the program.
And of course, the Cardinal has some pretty good players you may have heard of. A team cannot really be in a much better position when it has the National Player of the Year and there is some question if he is the best player on the team. But that exact scenario happened to Stanford this year, as sophomore outside hitter Brad Lawson took home the MPSF Player of the Year award while senior setter Kawika Shoji was named National Player of the Year. Lawson dominated the championship match with an absurd .821 hitting average and 24 kills to only one fluke error. Yet it could be argued that this success only happened because of perfect setting from Shoji.
This is not to say that these two are even the clear-cut best players on the team, though. Lawson might not even be the team’s best hitter, as senior opposite Evan Romero is Stanford’s all-time kills leader. Kawika Shoji might not even be the best Shoji on the team, as his brother Erik has already broken digs records as a libero and was a First-Team All-American in his first two years on the Farm. Add in guys like junior outside hitter Spencer McLachlin, the top high school player in the country in 2007, and the Cardinal’s two outstanding middle blockers, sophomore Gus Ellis and senior Garrett Werner, and this starting lineup is the most formidable in the country.
With this season now over, the senior class deserves special credit. Kawika Shoji, Romero and Werner got the most playing time, but outside hitters Jason Palacios and Ed Howell were also instrumental to Stanford’s success. Palacios came in to serve at crucial times throughout the year as well as being a substitute hitter. Howell suffered an unfortunate injury that kept him off the court, but he stayed on as team manager and remained an important part of the program. This group, the leaders of the “Worst to First” charge, ended their Cardinal careers hoisting the national championship trophy, and there could not be a more fitting finale.
Along with all this on-court success, the Stanford volleyball program is filled with extremely friendly people, and this might be the most remarkable fact of all. I must admit that I expected a group filled with world-class athletes and coaches to feel entitled or “above” the general population of the school, but this could not be further from the truth. These players and coaches are some of the nicest people I’ve met at Stanford, and this can only bode well for the long-term future of the program.
Of course, I’m only a fan. I have zero career kills and I will never make a diving dig or leaping roof block.
But seeing those players leap together to the sounds of “All Right Now” when Lawson’s final kill landed on the floor, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d won too.
And for that I thank you, Stanford men’s volleyball.
Jacob Jaffe wants to know everything about Stanford sports. E-mail him your info at [email protected]