Some of James Shaw’s first memories are in Maples Pavilion.
“The earliest things I can remember are just dancing around in the bleachers with my sister before my dad’s games and during time outs,” Shaw said. “We have that all on family video, so that’s the earliest memory I have of Maples, way back before it was renovated.”
“She was dancing along with the cheerleaders, and I was watching the Tree. I wasn’t even a year old.”
Now, more than two decades later, James is preparing for what is likely to be his final match in Maples, as the Cardinal host the quarterfinal round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Conference tournament this Saturday night. He admits that no matter how the match ends, it will be a little bittersweet.
“I guess this is the last year that a Shaw will be involved with Stanford volleyball for a while, at least,” he said. “It’s kind of a shocking realization, but at the same time, I’m happy with the legacy that I’ve left here and that my family has left here, and I’m happy with where the program is going.”
You could say that Stanford volleyball runs in the Shaw family.
His father, Don Shaw, served as a coach for the Cardinal for over a quarter of a century, leading the women’s team to four national championships (1992, 1994, 1996, 1997) and eight conference titles over his 16-year tenure as head coach. After taking the 2000 season off, Don took over as head coach of the Stanford men’s volleyball team, a position he held until his retirement in 2006.
Looking back, Shaw’s ascendance to the top of the Stanford volleyball team seems like his birthright, but his road to The Farm wasn’t quite so simple.
“When I was younger, I actually wanted to play football or baseball or basketball at Stanford,” Shaw laughed. “I never really thought about volleyball until my sister started playing club volleyball at 13 or 14 years old. I started playing around the same time, and from then on, things just kind of carried me to the point where I just knew I had to come here.”
Even after having spent much of his life courtside at Maples, James still had to earn his place in the locker room.
“In high school, I had to work really hard to get my grades up because I wasn’t quite at the [Stanford] level,” Shaw said. “I had to take on more classes and more AP classes, but at the same time, I knew all of the other schools were backup schools. I knew that this was the place that I wanted to be.”
Growing up, Shaw attended Stanford volleyball camps starting at age 6 – four years younger than the official minimum age – where he began to play at setter. His large, soft hands suited him to the position, as he learned to carefully place balls for the hitters. Shaw grew taller as he grew older, and after a growth spurt brought him to his full height of 6 feet, 8 inches, he began taking on a different role. Setters tended to be shorter, and high school teams sought to use his height to their advantage, often playing him as an outside hitter or opposite to overpower opposing defenses.
A common sports analogy compares the setter to the quarterback of a football team. He calls the shots, and touches the ball on nearly every play. Effectively serving as a captain on the court, the setter coordinates the team’s attack and makes sure the ball gets to the hitters with the best chance to get a kill.
When he came to Stanford, Shaw had a choice to make.
“I didn’t really know coming in what position I’d play,” he said. “I love to hit – and that was obviously the more exciting thing for me at the time, but I also knew that becoming a great setter would help me down the road and get me a lot father than being a hitter.
“There aren’t a lot of 6-foot-8 setters out there that can move around well enough to have a long career.”
When Shaw arrived on campus, the setter position had been vacated by the graduation of Evan Berry ’12, leaving big shoes to fill. After battling classmate Joe Ctvrtlik for the spot for much of the fall, Shaw won the job and never looked back. As a freshman, he ranked seventh nationally in assists per set and was named to the MPSF All-Freshman team.
The next year, Stanford made a deep run in the NCAA tournament, winning the semifinal match against BYU before falling to Loyola-Chicago in four sets in the championship. Shaw made the NCAA All-Tournament team and was named an AVCA Second-Team All-American for his stellar sophomore season.
That summer, he trained with the U.S. National Team.
After a junior season plagued with nagging injuries, Shaw has come back into his own this year, establishing himself as one of the best setters in the country. With 885 assists so far this season, Shaw ranks 13th nationally in assists per set while leading the Cardinal in service aces.
Shaw has set himself apart from other setters with his attack. His 110 kills on the season are nearly double the kill total of any other top-15 setter. He has mastered a series of dumps – slick moves to sneak the ball over the net and into a gap in opposing defenses – that he employs to keep the other team on its toes. His two-handed dump has been particularly effective this season, leaving opponents scrambling to react.
“I’ve always seen myself as an offensive threat, and the more kills I get or the more I can get the other team’s defense keying on me, the better the chances are going to be of having a great match,” Shaw said.
Going forward, he plans on pursuing volleyball professionally.
“I want to play volleyball as long as I possibly can,” Shaw said. “That’s all I’ve been thinking about, all I’ve ever really wanted to do.”
For most professional volleyball players, the majority of the year is spent in playing in Europe. A select few have the chance to play for national teams for three to four months in the summer. It’s a brutal schedule, with little time off and lots of practice.
This summer, Shaw will try to win a spot on the roster for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, but even if he can’t unseat a veteran this year, he has a real chance to play four years from now in Tokyo.
“It’s a difficult life,” Shaw said. “but that’s the goal: to be a year-round player and a rock on the national team and the international scene.”
And after that?
“I love volleyball, so I’m sure I’ll end up becoming a coach of some sort,” he said.
For now, he’s content to lead his team to the playoffs.
A Shaw will take the floor in Maples for the last time on Saturday. From a one-year-old in the bleachers to becoming the only four-year starter, Cardinal is in James Shaw’s blood. And looking back at his four years at Stanford, he knows he made the right choice when he followed in his father’s footsteps.
“This was definitely the place all along.”
Contact Olivia Hummer at ohummer ‘at’ stanford.edu.