The Stanford men’s volleyball team saw its drive to repeat as national champions stall out before it even picked up momentum, as the No. 4 Cardinal lost 3-2 in a dramatic five-set match at home against No. 5 Long Beach State in the MPSF quarterfinals Saturday night.
On the ropes at match point in the fifth and final set, senior outside hitter Spencer McLachlin had a chance to tie the score, but saw his smash go just wide of the line as the 49ers celebrated on the Maples Pavilion floor in front of a thousand fans, most of whom were solidly in Stanford’s corner.
Although this marks the end of the Cardinal’s chances to repeat as MPSF Tournament champions and earn an automatic bid to the four-team NCAA Championships to be held in State College, Penn. this year, there is still a slim chance that Stanford (19-9, 16-8 MPSF) could slip in with the one at-large bid given out by the selection committee.
No. 7 UC-Santa Barbara’s upset win over No. 2 BYU Saturday night could end up being crucial to Stanford’s cause, as the Cardinal swept the Cougars this season and split with Santa Barbara (who likely didn’t do well enough in the regular season to merit an at-large selection regardless of their finish in the MPSF Tournament). Should the Gauchos knock off Long Beach in the MPSF semifinals this Thursday in LA, it would likely be down to BYU, Long Beach and Stanford for the NCAA bid.
On Saturday, Stanford nearly managed to avoid all talk of at-large bids by getting over the hump against Long Beach (15-13, 12-10). Despite losing the two previous meetings with the 49ers earlier this season, the Cardinal put up a serious fight on its home floor.
Junior outside hitter Brad Lawson backed up his selection to the All-MPSF First Team with 27 kills, 15 digs and a match-high .426 hitting percentage on 54 swings. It just wasn’t quite enough, and the first set proved to be a harbinger of things to come in the match.
After trading points early on, Stanford took a three-point lead midway through the set at 15-12. The 49ers got some big contributions early from freshman outside hitter Taylor Crabb, who, along with reserve outside hitter Josh Riley, would be crucial for Long Beach down the stretch.
But even then, Stanford ran into a wall and couldn’t hold the lead —Long Beach went back on top for the first time since it led 7-6, going up 18-17. The Cardinal tied things up at 22, 23 and 24, but dropped the first set 26-24 when junior Gus Ellis was stuffed by a 49er block.
Stanford seemed to find energy in the crossover, pouncing on Long Beach early in the second set and getting the crowd into the match as it stretched its lead as far as five. As quickly as the Cardinal took the lead, it gave it back. Three straight kills by Riley put the 49ers within one, and a service ace by Riley tied the score at 17. Long Beach clearly had the momentum by that point and used a quick four-point run to force Stanford head coach John Kosty into a timeout late in game two.
Still, after a couple of attack errors on both sides of the net, Stanford freshman outside hitter Steven Irvin smashed a big kill past the block, tying the score at 24. Long Beach staved off defeat with a Kyle Friend kill on match point, but Irvin put the ball down on the second match point try and evened the match at one set each.
It wasn’t enough, as the 49ers came out like gangbusters in game three, storming out to a five-point lead midway through the set. When Stanford rallied — which coincided with Lawson catching fire and smashing five kills in a span of seven total points — Long Beach just managed to fight it off. A late four-point run turned a tied game into an insurmountable deficit for the Cardinal, who never led in the set.
Stanford was hitting in the low .200s at this point in the match but turned that around with just one attack error in the fourth set and a .414 hitting percentage. That reenergized the crowd just in time to see freshman middle Eric Mochalski get three blocks and two kills as he and Ellis neutralized All-MPSF middle Antwain Aguillard, who had been the Cardinal’s kryptonite in the two previous matches.
After the 49er attack broke down late in the fourth game with three attack errors and two service errors, the match moved to a fifth set with the momentum on Stanford’s side.
When the Cardinal grabbed a slim 11-9 advantage and forced Long Beach coach Andy Read into a timeout, the Maples crowd, on its feet now, could almost taste the victory. But Crabb and Riley wouldn’t let it happen. The senior Riley — who had started just eight matches all year — had four of his 19 kills in the fifth set, and although Irvin had a kill to make it 13-12 in Stanford’s favor, Crabb hit two straight balls through the block to put Stanford on the brink of elimination. When McLachlin’s hit went wide, it was all over.
The dramatic loss overshadowed some great defensive performances on both sides — junior libero Erik Shoji had 16 digs to lead four Stanford players in double figures, including junior setter Evan Barry who had 60 assists and 11 digs. For the 49ers — who have never won an MPSF Tournament before — four players reached double figures in digs including Riley with 13.
The Cardinal ended up outhitting Long Beach .262 to .243, but the 49ers got points at the right time to move on and send Stanford packing.
The selection committee makes its decision on the one at-large bid next Sunday, with the NCAA semifinal set for May 5.