Thursday night might have been the end of the road for the Stanford men’s volleyball program as the Cardinal (3-13, 3-13 MPSF) dropped a quarterfinal elimination match to No. 5 Pepperdine (12-5, 11-5 MPSF) in a 3-1 loss.
Tears pooled in the eyes of the Stanford student-athletes after the final point was called, while Stanford fans and the broadcast announcers stood up donning Save Stanford Men’s Volleyball t-shirts.
Wearing black tape over all Stanford logos and lettering in protest of the University’s July 2020 decision to discontinue the men’s volleyball, and 10 other varsity programs, following the 2020-21 academica year, the Cardinal battled four closely contested sets against the high-powered Pepperdine team. Stanford traveled to the Smith Fieldhouse for the MPSF playoffs looking to put together a national championship run and add to the list of reasons for the University to reverse its cuts.
But despite a career night by sophomore outside hitter Will Rottman highlighted by a tournament-best 24 kills, the Cardinal fell short, concluding a challenging season that included just three wins.
The Cardinal looked full of life to start the match after having taken a two-week break from competition; Stanford was supposed to face the Waves in its final regular-season contest, but COVID-19 challenges and related protocol within the Pepperdine program prompted the cancellation.
Stanford and Pepperdine traded blows out of the gate, keeping the first set close. With Stanford down 9-7 to the Waves, Rottman breached in full force, recording four kills over the next six Cardinal points and giving Stanford a 13-12 lead. But despite two more Rottman kills, errors from the Cardinal and two consecutive kills from Pepperdine gave the Waves a 17-14 lead heading into a Stanford timeout. Though the Cardinal kept the set close, strong kills down the middle from Pepperdine and a Stanford net violation handed the Waves the first set.
The Cardinal turned the early deficit into fuel to start off the second set. Rottman kept up his torrid pace, recording three kills, joined by two powerful kills from freshman outside hitter Luke Turner, to give Stanford a 10-7 lead and force a Pepperdine timeout. Stanford kept a steely grip on its lead, capitalizing on Pepperdine errors and extending the advantage to five points before another Pepperdine timeout. Staving off small runs from the Waves with clean play, Stanford took the set and evened the score at one.
For the first time all night, however, Stanford looked lost against the Pepperdine offense in the early minutes of the third set. With an opportunity to put the Waves on their heels, the Cardinal instead strung together errors and fell to an early 7-2 deficit. After keeping the set within arm’s length, Stanford started to mount a slow climb back, catalyzed by two straight blocks from senior middle blocker Kyler Presho. Scoring four unanswered points on several Pepperdine attacking errors, Stanford tied the Waves at 19 and forced a timeout. Out of the break, Pepperdine opened up a small lead, forcing a set point at 24-22.
As Pepperdine senior outside hitter Noah Dyer rose up for a kill, a Stanford defender met him at the net, tipping the ball slightly. Stanford freshman outside hitter Aidan Peters did not see his team’s tip and, thinking the ball was heading out off of Pepperdine, got out of the way, giving Pepperdine the set and a 2-1 advantage.
The fourth set opened almost exactly like the third, with Pepperdine jumping out to an early 10-5 lead. Unlike in the previous set, however, Stanford was unable to close the gap. A coordinated offensive attack from Pepperdine senior middle blocker Austin Wilmot kept the Pepperdine lead above three points for the rest of the set. Any daylight remaining for the Cardinal, down 16-19 by the final timeout, was promptly shuttered by the Waves, who went on a 4-1 run to take the final set — and the match — to advance to play UCLA in the MPSF semifinals.
Rottman led Stanford with 24 kills and a .500 hitting percentage, followed by Turner, who tallied 13 kills on a .348 hitting percentage. The Cardinal leave Salt Lake City with all their hopes resting on Stanford’s recent decision to potentially reconsider cutting the 11 varsity programs. Many of the Stanford student-athletes have already entered the transfer portal to give themselves an option to leave if the University does not reverse its decision.