No. 15 Stanford men’s volleyball (5-2, 0-0 MPSF) stormed past Vanguard University (2-1, 0-0 GSAC) and UC Santa Cruz (0-6) on Friday and Saturday in Burnham Pavilion. The Cardinal lost just one set between the games, bouncing back from last week’s losses.
After dropping two games last week to ranked opponents, playing a NAIA team (Vanguard) and a NCAA Division III team (UCSC) allowed the Cardinal to experiment with its rotations and give walk-on players their first minutes of the season.
The Cardinal defeated Vanguard 25-21, 25-20, 25-21 on Friday, and took down UCSC 25-11, 25-20, 23-25, 25-14 on Saturday.
Unlike their competitors, Stanford’s team did not add any recruits in the offseason, as the team faced the threat of cancelation following the 2020-21 academic year. Instead, Stanford lost three student-athletes to the transfer portal. The small group, however, may be a silver lining for the Cardinal. At 14 student-athletes — the smallest team in years — this season has been all about watching everyone develop together, redshirt sophomore middle blocker Ethan Hill said.
“Volleyball is a team sport — that’s just how it goes,” Hill said. “Without the passes, without the sets, there’s not much you can do. We have great chemistry as a team, and everyone comes to practice every day just looking to get better. It’s been a blast to get better with these guys.”
Individually, Hill has shown signs of a potential breakout season, recording 27 kills through his first four appearances. He and head coach John Kosty partially attribute the growth to the improvement of the team’s setting.
“Hill is a tremendous player, and we don’t really look at last year as a comparison,” Kosty said. “This is a new opportunity for everybody. He’s always had that offensive talent, and we’re able to truly utilize it, now that we’re able to set better for him.”
Rebounding versus Vanguard (3-0)
On Friday, Hill was nearly flawless. The UCLA transfer racked up eight kills while hitting .800 in Stanford’s sweep of Vanguard.
But in a game that was all about getting back on track after a rough loss to UCSD, the primary takeaway from Friday’s game was the Cardinal’s clean play. Stanford committed just eight attack errors as a team and had 12 service errors, nearly half of Vanguard’s totals in both categories. The Cardinal never gave up control throughout the game, losing the lead only three times.
“We knew we had to play a little bit grittier this week,” Kosty said. “That’s what we did today.”
Junior setter Nathan Lietzke continued his strong start to the season, recording 28 assists. The balanced play of junior outside hitter Kevin Lamp also played a large role in the victory, totalling seven kills on 12 attempts.
Outlasting UC Santa Cruz (3-1)
Facing the Banana Slugs on Saturday, the spotlight was on new faces. Sophomore setter Chris Kelly made his first appearance of the season in the game’s second set, playing through the entirety of the third in place of Lietzke. Kelly came away with a career-high 17 assists and a kill while committing no errors.
“[Kelly] has just gotten so much stronger and more physical,” Kosty said. “That’s how it’s been with a lot of our guys coming off last year. This year is a new beginning for us, and we need to continue to get in the weight room and continue to put in the work off the court as much as on the court.”
After taking the second set 25-20, the Cardinal rotated in walk-on sophomore libero Matt Martinez, who recorded two digs on the court. Junior walk-on libero Aaron Li also made his first appearance of the season and recorded a dig for the Cardinal in the third set.
“We’re all so happy for everybody to get in, and when walk-ons play it’s just awesome,” Hill said. “They’re just as much part of the team as anyone else. We’ve been through a lot together this year and last, so we’re stoked for everybody to play.”
It initially looked as though the Cardinal were on their way to another sweep, holding a lead late into the third set, but the Banana Slugs took advantage of the new rotation and went on a four-point run to force a fourth set. In the fourth and final set, Kosty subbed his starters back in the game, who helped put the final nail in UCSC’s coffin.
The strong play of junior outside hitter Will Rottman helped carry the Cardinal to a statement 25-14 win in the fourth set. The Santa Barbara native came away with 14 kills, hitting .300, but much of his impact came on the defensive end, recording a team-leading 11 digs in Stanford’s 3-1 victory over UCSC.
After improving to 5-2, the Cardinal will travel to Texas on Feb. 4 to take on Kentucky State (1-3, 0-0 SIAC) and No. 1 Hawai’i (4-0, 0-0 Big West) in the First Point Collegiate Challenge.