Amid a slow start to the season, Stanford men’s volleyball (0-4, 0-4 MPSF) dropped another match against No. 9 UCLA (7-3, 7-3 MPSF) 1-3 on Friday evening.
The Cardinal traveled down to Westwood for the second leg of a five-game road trip, looking to turn things around after handing its first three matches to No. 3 Pepperdine. Stanford put up a resilient effort, taking the first set and forcing the Bruins to fight for the final set, but the Cardinal were ultimately unable to overcome UCLA’s high powered offense.
Still, head coach John Kosty said there were plenty of positives to take away from the contest.
“I liked our team chemistry tonight,” Kosty said. “We were definitely thrown some curveballs getting the match started. And I thought we did a really nice job of focusing in and doing what we needed to do to be competitive with UCLA. They’ve got nine matches under their belt and we’re just basically starting our season. So, I like the energy we had and I like what we did on the court tonight.”
Both teams started the night off quickly, trading punches until Stanford had built an 11-8 lead, at which point UCLA took a timeout. The Bruins struggled mightily with their serves in the first match, handing the Cardinal five of their first seven points on service errors. Stanford, on the other hand, played a measured set, committing just four service errors to the Bruins’ 10. While the high-octane UCLA offense kept the Bruins in it to the end, narrowing the lead to 24-23, the Cardinal remained disciplined. A kill from sophomore middle blocker Nathaniel Gates clinched the opening set for the Cardinal 25-23. Though Stanford recorded just seven kills to UCLA’s 13, the consistent service and offense from freshman outside hitter Aidan Peters and senior outside hitter Leo Henken made the difference in the gritty win.
“He can play volleyball,” Kosty said of Peters. “He is what we call a high volleyball IQ guy. Even when the block may seem enormous in front of him, he finds ways to get kills and his ball control and his ability to dig balls are a great benefit to our team.”
But the opening victory seemed to drain the Cardinal, as UCLA jumped out to a 10-5 lead over Stanford in the second set, prompting a timeout from Kosty. After the timeout, UCLA only built on its initial momentum, as the team was able to stem its service woes while continuing its strong offensive attack. Though Peters recorded four kills and did his best to keep the Cardinal in the second set, Stanford did not have an answer to the strong Bruins offense, which raised its hitting percentage to .542 against Stanford’s -.037. UCLA ran away with the set 25-15, evening the score at 1-1.
The man leading the Bruins charge, redshirt freshman outside hitter Merrick McHenry, stayed hot in the third set, which closely resembled the second. By the time Stanford called a timeout, McHenry had combined with senior outside hitter Austin Matautia for six kills and pushed the Bruins out to a 16-10 lead. But the pause did little to stop the bleeding, as the Cardinal defense withered against aces and kills from the Bruins, who took the set 25-13. Again, the difference-maker was kills — while Stanford kept errors low and recorded a solid .300 hitting percentage in the third set, the Bruins nearly doubled Stanford’s kills with 12 in the set.
“Their middle blockers are really strong, so we’ve got to figure out a better way to be able to control them a little bit more,” Kosty said. “Going forward we have to at least get some better touches on the ball and slow down their middle attack.”
The fourth set saw glimpses of the type of gameplay Kosty was hoping for, as the Cardinal jumped out ahead early to an 8-3 advantage, its biggest lead of the night. But a timeout from the Bruins seemed to quiet the Cardinal defense back down, as McHenry scored three of four consecutive points for UCLA with a block and two kills. Stanford sophomore setter Nathaniel Lietzke returned the favor with two consecutive kills, but by the next Cardinal timeout, the Bruins had evened the score at 12. Like in sets two and three, the Bruin offense remained too strong for the Cardinal, as UCLA scored nine of its next 10 points on kills, taking a 22-18 lead. Though Stanford tried to mount a final push, narrowing the deficit to two points, it could not complete the comeback, dropping the final set 21-25 on just .152 hitting.
When all was said and done, the Bruins had overpowered Stanford with 57 kills, nearly twice Stanford’s 29, which tied the team’s season low. UCLA’s McHenry looked untouchable on Friday night, finishing with 17 kills and just one error on 27 attempts. Nevertheless, the Cardinal showed resilience and energy, both on the court and on the raucous Stanford bench, putting up a strong fight behind bright performances from Peters and sophomore outside hitter Will Rottman, who recorded six kills and a block. Lietzke also demonstrated his offensive prowess, adding an efficient five kills on just six attempts and recording 18 assists.
When asked if he was still optimistic about the team’s future this season after the rough start to the season, Kosty responded without hesitation: “Totally. This is a great group of guys who are highly competitive and talented. And we’ve got depth in all the positions. That’s what’s very encouraging for the season.”
On Saturday, Stanford will return to Pauley Pavilion looking to even the series against UCLA. Game time 7:30 p.m. PT.