Last weekend, the Stanford men’s volleyball team got exactly what the doctor ordered: a road sweep of the previously top-ranked BYU Cougars.
Despite having dropped its previous two Friday night matches against now No. 1 UCLA and No. 5 Penn State, the No. 4 Cardinal has shown resilience on Saturdays, outlasting top-15 opponents No. 14 UC-Santa Barbara and No. 8 Ohio State in consecutive weekends. Following the impressive sweep of BYU, Stanford (7-2, 4-1 MPSF) now hopes to continue its momentum and avoid the ever-pesky letdown match this weekend in southern California against conference foes No. 9 Long Beach State (5-4, 1-3) and No. 11 Cal State Northridge (3-6, 1-4).
“We had a big weekend against BYU and we’re certainly proud of the two wins we got in Provo, but like our coach always says, it’s the MPSF and every match is just as important as the next,” said senior captain Brad Lawson.
A balanced attack, run smoothly and efficiently by senior setter Evan Barry, has been the calling card for Stanford thus far this season. Lawson and sophomores Brian Cook, Eric Mochalski and reigning MPSF Player of the Week Steven Irvin all average at least two kills per set and have a hitting percentage above .300. As a result, Stanford has easily outhit its opponents thus far this season, landing 36 percent of its swings in contrast to its opponents’ 29.2 percentage. Barry leads the NCAA with 12.26 assists per game.
Led by senior libero Erik Shoji, Stanford has out-dug its opponents, averaging nearly a dig and a half more per set (9.00 to 7.55). Shoji currently ranks third in the nation at a 2.73 digs-per-set clip.
Long Beach State figures to present a challenge this Friday night in a rematch of last year’s MPSF quarterfinal, which the 49ers won. LBSU has a stingy defense thanks to a starting lineup that features three players 6-foot-7 or taller, helping to hold opponents to a lowly .236 hitting percentage this season.
Seniors Jim Baughman and Brad Hemmerling, as well as sophomore Taylor Crabb lead the 49ers’ attack, with each averaging better than 2.5 kills per set. Running the show is sophomore setter Connor Olbright, who assists on an impressive 62.5 percent of his sets. He, along with Crabb, was a teammate of Cook, Irvin and Mochalski this summer on the U.S. Men’s Junior National Team that placed fourth at the Junior World Championships in Brazil.
Although the 49ers have struggled somewhat in league play thus far this season, Long Beach State is a different team at home. Stanford will have to be the first team to defeat the 49ers inside the iconic Walter Pyramid this season, and snapping Long Beach’s three-match win streak will clearly be no easy chore.
“We’ll be facing Long Beach in a rematch of last year’s MPSF quarterfinal, and for those of us who were on last year’s squad, that’s a strong motivating factor,” Lawson said of the Cardinal’s season-ending defeat a year ago.
On Saturday, the Cardinal will be charged with the task of slowing down the Cal State-Northridge Matadors, a team that plays two setters and has six players averaging at least a kill per set. The Matadors are led by freshman Julius Hoefer, who ranks third in the NCAA among freshmen with 3.53 kills per set. Northridge’s other featured hitter is senior Matt Stork, who averages 2.63 kills per set.
Like Long Beach State, Northridge has found much more success at home this season. The Matadors are 2-0 in Northridge despite having lost all five of their true road games.
If Stanford has MPSF- and national-title aspirations, this weekend should be one where the Cardinal takes care of business. On paper, Stanford has too many weapons for either Long Beach State or Cal State-Northridge to contend with, even while on the road. Beating teams in the lower half of the conference standings on the road will be a crucial task moving forward, especially considering the Cardinal gets to finish with 11 of its final 13 matches at home.
Stanford will take on Long Beach State on Friday and Cal State-Northridge on Saturday, with both matches beginning at 7 p.m. It is the team’s second-to-last road trip before returning to the Farm for a six-match home stand.