A year ago, despite a youthful roster that featured just one senior in the starting lineup, the Stanford men’s volleyball team finished with a 19-8 record and a top-10 national ranking. Although the season came to a premature end in a disappointing match in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Tournament, one that prevented Stanford from defending its national title, much good could be found in the season’s results for the Cardinal.
Then-juniors Erik Shoji and Brad Lawson repeated as American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) First Team All-Americans, with Shoji becoming just the second Cardinal player ever to earn the honor three times. Freshmen Eric Mochalski and Brian Cook became dependable weapons, with Mochalski earning MPSF All-Freshman honors, and junior setter Evan Barry settled comfortably into his new starting spot. All of this underlies the best news of all about young teams: they only get better.
The Cardinal returns six of its seven starters from a team that a year ago finished with a 15-7 conference record, good enough for third. Senior middle blocker and third-year starter Gus Ellis joins Shoji, Lawson, Mochalski, Cook and Barry as a returner in the starting lineup, which will be nicely complemented with the addition of 6-7 sophomore Denny Falls. Obviously, the optimism on this team runs high.
“We have excellent talent and leadership in our senior class,” Mochalski said. “This team is focused and determined to have a great year and make a run in the playoffs.”
He isn’t the only one that agrees with this assessment of the team’s chances. The Cardinal opens the season ranked No. 4 in the country and is predicted to finish third in the MPSF, though the ceiling could be much higher.
The team’s attack should once again center around Lawson, who a season ago led the team in kills, kills per set (finishing seventh in the nation), service aces and service aces per set. Joining Lawson on the attack will be his fellow senior Ellis, who finished the season with an efficient .351 hitting percentage.
The 6-5 Mochalski, who led the team in hitting percentage at a .451 clip and finished second in aces, will be the team’s jack-of-all-trades in his sophomore season despite having started the majority of last season at middle blocker. He is listed at three different positions on the team’s official website. Cook, Mochalski’s classmate, returns as the second-leading returner in kills, having finished third on the team a season ago.
These two headline a parade of sophomores who will greatly contribute to the Cardinal’s attack, which includes Falls and 6-5 outside hitter Steven Irvin. Irvin posted an impressive 15 kills in the team’s second exhibition victory over Thompson Rivers, starting in place of the resting seniors Lawson and Ellis.
The man tasked with distributing the ball to the plethora of talent Stanford features will once again be Barry, who made an impressive starting debut a season ago. Barry finished last season fourth in the country in assists per set at 11.56, good for a .488 assist percentage. He also contributed 34 kills and finished fourth on the team with 1.35 digs per set.
The defense once again will be anchored by the All-American Shoji, who finished third in the country in digs per set with 2.62 and became Stanford’s all-time leader in digs. Expect redshirt freshman Scott Sakaida to fill the void left by the graduated Jordan Inafuku as the ever-important second libero and defensive specialist. Sakaida was a high school teammate of Lawson’s. Ellis and Mochalski will once more lead the Cardinal’s defense at the net, as they led the team with nearly a block per set each last season.
If last season was any indication, expect big things from the Cardinal this year. The mix of seniors and sophomores will provide a great mix of talent, leadership and experience, one that should translate to excellent results.
“Having four senior starters on the team most importantly means we have experienced players out on the floor. We know each other well and have a good idea of what the next guy is going to do before he does it,” Lawson said.
The team’s season officially opens today at Pacific, and the team’s home opener comes on Friday at 7 p.m. against Juniata.