Through the first three matches of the season, No. 12 Stanford men’s volleyball (3-0, 0-0 MPSF) has already equaled last season’s win total and has knocked off No. 15 UC Irvine (2-1, 0-0 Big West) in the process.
The Cardinal’s torrid start is largely a surprise for the team that left Smith Fieldhouse last spring with a first-round exit in what many thought would be the program’s last match ever. But after Stanford reversed its decision to cut 11 varsity sports, including men’s volleyball, the program is looking to start a new chapter — one characterized by resilience, success and growth. Most of all, said head coach John Kosty, this season is about joy.
“During and after the reinstatement, there was just this realization that we’re just a piece of this large Stanford men’s volleyball puzzle,” Kosty said. “It’s been going on since the ’60s and there’s so many people that have played before us. It’s just a joy for all of us to be able to play in their honor.”
The Cardinal return a smaller, older team than in past years after losing top student-athletes opposite hitter Jaylen Jasper ’21, middle blocker Kyler Presho ’21 and outside hitter Kupono Browne (originally ’24) to the transfer portal and halting recruitment efforts while facing discontinuation.
This year’s Stanford squad is a tighter group, having navigated the bumps along the road of last year’s season together, something that Kosty said has been an inspiration to watch.
“Our guys are gritty; they are determined, and they are resilient,” Kosty said. “It’s an incredibly small, passionate group that feels like a true family and has each other’s back and are working hard for one common goal, and that goal is to get better every day.”
The renewed closeness among the student-athletes has also seeped into the coaching changes that the staff have implemented this year, according to Kosty.
“We all have a part in our success, and we all have a say in what we do and how we execute it,” he said. “The players have a lot more say in the strategy. We’re bringing a whole lot of their input to the table as we look at each individual match going forward. We have a small team, and our goal this year is to truly rebuild that foundation that we had before.”
On Friday, Stanford will get a chance to prove that its five-set victory over UC Irvine on Jan. 8 was not a fluke, but rather a sign of success to come. Stanford will face the Anteaters again, this time at UC Irvine, before traveling down to La Jolla to compete against No. 10 UC San Diego (0-0, 0-0 Big West) on Saturday. To string together two more early wins, Stanford will need to rely on the arms of junior outside hitter Will Rottman and sophomore outside hitter Luke Turner, along with the consistent play of junior middle blocker Nathaniel Gates. The trio, who combined to record 39 kills in the win over UCI, are part of what Kosty is calling an all-hands-on deck approach, where all 14 student-athletes will play a meaningful role in the team’s success.
The Anteaters’ attack features three of the strongest pin hitters in the country — including sophomore outside hitter Francesco Sani and freshman outside hitter Hilir Henno — which makes defense and clean play a must for Stanford.
“It’s a formidable offense to go against,” Kosty said. “I thought we did a really nice job containing it last week. We blocked balls that they made mistakes on and, when they didn’t make mistakes, we had our defense in a good position where we could dig balls and have opportunities for transition point scoring. That’s something that we need to continue tomorrow.”
This season will look markedly different from Stanford’s 2021 campaign, which saw the program thrown into the fire against top conference opponents without the typical off-season preparation and in the midst of the team’s pending cancellation. This year, however, the Cardinal will have the chance to build momentum and iron out any weaknesses in the lead-up to conference play, which officially begins in March. But if Stanford can continue playing like it has, the heart of the season can’t come soon enough.