Despite struggles, men’s volleyball makes the most of unusual season

March 29, 2021, 11:52 p.m.

Stanford men’s volleyball returned to the Farm empty-handed after a road trip that saw the Cardinal (1-13, 1-13 MPSF) drop three matches in quick succession to USC (5-8, 5-8 MPSF). The Cardinal, who lost its fifth match in six days on Sunday afternoon, could not find an answer to the Trojans throughout the series, winning just one set while in Los Angeles.

The recent losses are the latest in what has been a uniquely trying season for the program. Last July, the University announced its intentions to discontinue men’s volleyball’s varsity status following the 2021 season. The announcement, which came as part of a larger decision to cut 11 Stanford athletic programs partially due to financial struggles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, has drawn nationwide scrutiny as well as protest from countless Stanford athletics alumni. Still, the University has not budged on its decision, and the men’s volleyball athletes are competing this season under the assumption that it is their last, according to head coach John Kosty.

“It’s a tough set of circumstances, but these guys are really special,” Kosty said. “They committed to the season, and they have so much weight on their shoulders given by outside entities, and I’ve just been really proud of how they’ve conducted themselves throughout the season. It’s an incredible group of young men who just keep fighting.”

The unusual season marks Kosty’s 15th year coaching the Cardinal.

Like many programs across the country, the team has had to cope with a shortened season filled with COVID-19 protocol. But the Cardinal was dealt another difficult hand by the stringent restrictions and regulations in Santa Clara County. Unlike in past seasons, the team was unable to have a substantial “training block” together prior to the beginning of conference play, with most of the players arriving to campus in late January, Kosty explained.

Many on the squad had never played together before: six of the 17 rostered players are newcomers, and four of those are true freshmen. These factors have combined to make it difficult for the Cardinal to compete at its highest potential right out of the gate and have also affected the mindset of the players who know that their first season with the team will likely be their last.

“Coming into this year, I wanted to make this one year worthwhile for the guys, because this opportunity that they were promised for four years is getting stripped away,” senior opposite Mason Tufuga said. “So that meant embracing the culture and just building relationships with the guys. Each of us is on our own journey, but right now our common goal is to feel good about what we’re putting out on the floor and how we’re supporting each other.”

On paper, this season has been a forgettable one for the team. Though the Cardinal has shown flashes this season, taking down No. 9 Grand Canyon University (4-8, 4-8 MPSF), bright spots have been few and far between. Its 1-13 start is Stanford’s worst since 2007, though this may be due in part to the fact that the team has competed primarily against ranked conference opponents. Amid the early struggles, Tufuga said the team has worked to maintain a positive attitude and build on small successes.

No matter which stadium the team visits, its energy is palpable. In empty arenas across the country, the absence of crowd noise is filled by the screams of Cardinal players after a powerful kill or unique heckle chants from the bench when the opposing team is serving.

‘We’ve found creative ways to fill that emptiness … so that we can feel some sense of celebration and interaction between guys on the court,” Tufuga said. 

Three more losses

It looked like Stanford was going to be able to translate that positive attitude into positive play early on Friday afternoon against USC — the first of the three-match series. The team stormed out to a 15-12 lead over the Trojans before the first time out, capitalizing on service errors from USC and a balanced offensive attack from senior middle blocker Kyler Presho and freshman outside hitter Luke Turner. From that point on, though, USC dug its heels in, piercing through the Cardinal defense with eight kills on the final 10 Trojan points. Down 23-24, sophomore Will Rottman rose up for a kill, sending the ball down the right-hand line, but the referee ruled the ball out, handing the first set to the Trojans.

The second set looked promising as well, with four Stanford players each recording two kills early and keeping the Trojans within striking distance by the first Cardinal time out at 11-14. But USC took complete control late in the set again. Despite a strong effort from redshirt sophomore libero Justin Lui, Stanford was unable to dig powerful kills from the USC offense, who took the second set 25-18. The Trojans hit .368 in the second set to the Cardinal’s .100 and made just one error to Stanford’s eight.

Down 0-2 in the match, the Cardinal finally found success in the third set. Kosty substituted in freshman outside hitter Kupono Browne for the third set, immediately impacting the team’s energy. Two quick kills and a service ace from Browne, combined with a kil and an ace from Turner, gave the Cardinal an early 9-8 lead. The Cardinal, looking resolute not to get shut out in the series opener, fought hard, led by a strong offensive attack from Turner, who finished the set with five kills and two service aces. Browne powered a ball between Trojan defenders and Stanford took the set 25-23.

The back-and-forth pattern continued in the fourth set. Despite jumping out to a commanding 7-3 lead early on four straight Trojan errors, the Cardinal defense struggled to counter offensive runs from the Trojans. USC junior outside hitter Brandon Browning recorded four straight kills, tying the set at 14-14 and prompting a Stanford time out. The teams went back and forth, trading leads late into the fourth set, taking the set to a match point with USC leading 24-23. With the match on the line, a Stanford defender dove to dig a strong hit from Browning, but again, a close ruling from the referee, who determined that the ball had hit the floor first, gave the match to the Trojans.

“Men’s volleyball is a very fast paced game,” Kosty said when asked about the calls after the loss. “It’s really tough to track and see where that ball bounces and, and without a high-level challenge system in play in any gym, sometimes you can’t tell.”

Unlike Friday’s match, the second match of the series never looked close. Where USC errors had given Stanford a window at times on Friday, the Trojans looked much more polished on Saturday. The Trojans made just 13 errors throughout the three-set match, compared to Stanford’s 22. Though Stanford battled during the first two sets, running down balls and countering USC’s attacks with blocks at the net, the Cardinal constantly looked like it was on the defensive. Early errors put the ball in Trojan hands for service, and consistent passing from USC gave the Trojans far more opportunities to play with aggression.

“[The Trojans’] passing made it tough to get them out of system,” Kosty said. “I applaud them and the way they got the ball to the net.”

After dropping the first set 25-17, Kosty brought Tufuga into the game down 20-11 to switch up the team’s offense. Though Stanford lost the second set 25-15, and struggled again to find success in the third set, Kosty praised Tufuga for his impact on the match. Tufuga recorded two kills and nine assists.

Though the Cardinal dropped the final set of the match 25-18, it put together a strong 7-2 run near the end, a stretch that Kosty said he hoped the team would be able to take confidence from going into the final game of the series.

Sunday’s match started off almost exactly as Saturday’s had, though, and the Cardinal found itself behind the pace early, dropping the first set 25-14. Again, the Trojan offense made it difficult for Stanford to find any rhythm. Led by redshirt junior outside hitters Clay Dickinson and Billy Fauntleroy, the Trojans recorded 17 kills on a near-flawless .556 hitting percentage in the first set.

Browne and sophomore outside hitter Kevin Lamp looked to turn the tides in the second match, recording strong kills and blocks of their own and leading a four point unanswered run that gave Stanford an early 13-12 lead. But that run was quickly followed by four straight attack errors from the Cardinal, giving USC an edge that it would not give back for the rest of the set, defeating Stanford 25-18.

The Cardinal found its stride early in the third set, taking advantage of USC errors and making few of its own. Throughout most of the set, Stanford kept things close, leading 17-16 at one point. But USC showed its strength late in the set again, going on a four point run. Despite a late charge from the Cardinal, USC completed its shutout and series sweep with a 25-22 win. The Trojans hit .461 and recorded 45 kills, while Stanford hit .277 with just 30 kills.

Looking forward

Though Stanford left the Galen Center without much to show for the team’s efforts, there’s still time for a turnaround. Due to the pandemic, all teams in the MPSF will make the playoffs and have a chance at a title. To make a run, the young Cardinal team will have to draw knowledge and experience from wins and losses alike, Kosty said.

“We are going to have to beat somebody in the top five to 10 to get to the national championships, and yes, that means we’re gonna have to get a couple upsets,” Kosty said.

Tufuga seconded Kosty, adding that the team is most focused on growing together as a unit: “Once we get to the conference championship, these wins and losses don’t matter anymore,” Tufuga said. “If we want to try to win a national championship, we need to be able to move on from these games and not dwell on losses so that we can see the progress of this process.”

In recent weeks, Stanford Wrestling has attracted nationwide attention to the University’s decision to discontinue 11 varsity programs following an individual national title win by Stanford redshirt sophomore wrestler Shane Griffith. While Tufuga said he hopes volleyball will be able to do the same in its final season, he added that the athletes should not be put in a position where they have to prove their worth to the University.

“It’s pretty apparent by the backing of the volleyball community that this program means so much,” Tufuga said. “I don’t think whether we deserve to stay should be defined by the success in our sport. We’re way more than just athletes, and I think Stanford should know that.”

Tammer Bagdasarian '24 is an Executive Editor for The Daily, and is planning to major in Communication and Political Science. He previously served as a News Managing Editor. Contact him at tbagdasarian 'at'

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