“First to First” has been the rallying cry of the men’s volleyball team all year long, but the postseason and Stanford’s national title defense officially begins Saturday night as the Cardinal plays host to No. 5 Long Beach State in the first round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament.
Stanford (19-8, 15-7 MPSF) is No. 4 in the most recently released AVCA Division I rankings, but earned the No. 3 seed in the MPSF and drew sixth-seeded Long Beach (14-13, 12-10). The 49ers have never won the MPSF Tournament, but they upset Stanford twice this season, including a 3-0 sweep of the Cardinal at home. That match was played back in January, but the rematch in March didn’t go much better for Stanford—a very balanced attack saw the 49ers attack up the middle all night long to the tune of a .396 hitting percentage and come back to win 3-2.
Senior middle blocker Antwain Aguillard was named Thursday to the All-MPSF First Team and is second in the MPSF with 127 total blocks while hitting .377 with 208 kills on the season—he also almost single-handedly beat the Cardinal with 24 kills and a .686 hitting percentage in the second match between the two squads.
The Cardinal will counter with its own All-MPSF middle blocker, but unlike the seasoned senior presence of the 6-foot-6 Aguillard, Stanford will rely heavily on freshman Eric Mochalski. Often working in tandem with junior middle blocker Gus Ellis, Mochalski burst onto the scene and earned a starting role early in the season, thanks in large part to his efficient offense and versatility.
The 6-foot-5 freshman from Manhattan Beach, Calif. can play outside hitter, opposite or middle blocker and finished second in the MPSF with a .455 hitting percentage. Mochalski also leads the team with 85 blocks and is fourth in total kills with 169.
In the victory over UCLA that clinched home court in the playoffs for Stanford, Mochalski had nine kills on just 16 swings and contributed five blocks on defense.
But if Stanford is to succeed, it will also need solid play from its veteran leadership in the form of outside hitters Spencer McLachlin and Brad Lawson. McLachlin, a senior, was named to the All-MPSF Second Team and was second on the team with 387 kills while starting in 26 of 27 matches this season.
Lawson, for his part, was named to the All-MPSF First Team for the second consecutive year and racked up some impressive statistics for the season. A 6-foot-7 junior from Honolulu, Lawson was a First-Team All-American last season and backed up that honor with a team-high 428 kills and a .325 hitting percentage. His 4.28 kills per set are good for seventh in the country, and he has come up big in several of Stanford’s biggest matches of the year—in the 3-2 loss to Long Beach, he had 21 kills and seven digs with a .340 hitting percentage.
Junior libero Erik Shoji was also named to the All-MPSF Second Team, and he’ll have to factor in defensively if Stanford hopes to control the pace of play against Long Beach.
Redshirt junior Garrett Dobbs was cautious in his analysis of Stanford’s chances to beat Long Beach State, let alone pull off a difficult repeat of last year’s title run.
“We’re going to have some really tough matches coming up,” he said. “Long Beach has had some really high and really low points this year, but we have to prepare to see their best team, and when they’re at their best they can be one of the top teams in the country.”
Defensively, at least, Stanford likely saw Long Beach at its best in January, when the 49ers held the Cardinal to a .021 hitting percentage. But if junior setter Evan Barry can play like he did in last week’s win over Pacific, when he tallied a career-high 63 assists that was just one short of Stanford’s all-time high, the crowd at Maples should be in for a true barn-burner of a match.
Long Beach leads the all-time series by a wide margin, having won 41 of the 66 games between the two, including the one previous postseason matchup that was played back in 1993.
Should the Cardinal advance, it would meet the winner of No. 2 BYU and seventh-seeded UC-Santa Barbara in a semifinal game on April 28 at the site of the highest seed. After that is the MPSF Final, scheduled for Saturday, April 30—the four-team NCAA Tournament begins Thursday, May 5 in State College, Penn.