No. 14 Stanford men’s volleyball (8-7, 0-2 MPSF) got off to a slow start in conference play, dropping their first two games to Concordia University Irvine (8-4, 2-2 MPSF) on Thursday and Friday.
The double-header in Southern California was held despite tragedy back on campus. On Tuesday, the Stanford community lost beloved classmate and student-athlete Katie Meyer ’22, and the men’s volleyball team chose to honor her memory by sporting ‘KM’ on their shoes and wristbands.
“We feel the loss,” head coach John Kosty said. “But in a way, we feel that she is still with us. We cherish the relationships that we had with her. It’s a hard situation for young adults to have to deal with and I think our team is doing a good job going through the emotions.”
Forcing five on Thursday
The Cardinal looked poised to pull off an emotional victory early Thursday evening, jumping out to an early 7-2 lead after multiple errors from the Concordia offense. The advantage was short-lived, however, as Concordia tore through the Stanford defense with nine unanswered points to take back the advantage. Despite both teams totalling 12 kills and five errors in the set, the Cardinal were unable to retake the lead, dropping the first set 25-20.
The second set was a near mirror image of the first. Stanford looked in control throughout most of the set, capitalizing on six kills from junior outside hitter Kevin Lamp. With a late three point advantage, however, Stanford let the Eagles back into the set by giving up eight consecutive points. Late attack errors and a lack of composure on defense gave Concordia a 25-21 victory and the 2-0 lead.
“It’s about finishing now,” Kosty said. “I think we’re understanding most of the phases of the game and how to beat opponents in the MPSF. We just need to take that lead into the last part of the part of each set and execute just a little bit better.”
But on a night of mourning where finding a spark was difficult, the student-athletes showed they still had some fight left in them. The Cardinal surged back over the next two sets, recording 32 kills on a combined .350 hitting percentage. Led by a two-man show on offense from junior outside hitter Will Rottman and redshirt sophomore middle blocker Ethan Hill, Stanford powered to a commanding 25-18 victory in the third set.
The team continued to capitalized on momentum in the fourth set, overcoming an early deficit with a run of clean play. The Cardinal looked strong on service — an area that has plagued the team in recent competition — recording an ace and just two service errors in the set. With a 25-21 win, Stanford evened the set-score at two and forced a fifth set — the first five-set game since the Cardinal’s Jan. 8 win over No. 12 UC Irvine (5-8, 0-0 Big West).
With the first conference game on the line, the team’s early-game issues cropped back up. Tied 12-12 and just three points away from a comeback victory, Stanford faltered against strong swings from Concordia’s pin hitters, losing the final set 15-13. The team hit .295 on the night, recording 69 kills but committing 26 combined errors.
Struggles repeat on Friday
Back at CU Arena the following night, the Cardinal looked for a different result but faced stiff opposition from the Eagles, who won in four sets.
In a tight first set, Stanford held its own against Concordia. The two teams stayed within several points of each other throughout the set, which the Eagles eventually took 25-22.
The Cardinal had a much quicker start in the second set. Strong passing, hitting and blocking earned them an early lead and allowed them to hold onto it. A deep kill from Lamp gave Stanford the set 25-22, tying the game 1-1.
In the third set, the Cardinal looked to take their first set lead of the two-game series, jumping out to an early 12-7 advantage punctuated by a service ace from junior middle blocker Adam Chang. But the Eagles battled back, with Concordia’s middle blocker/opposite Owen Chun and middle blocker Max McCullough showing their finesse at the net. Down 24-25, a kill by junior middle blocker Nathaniel Gates denied Concordia the set — but only momentarily. The Eagles won the next two points, taking the set 27-25.
Concordia took a dominant lead in the fourth set, but the Cardinal still managed to make things difficult for their opponent. Down 18-11, a dump by junior setter Nathan Lietzke narrowed the Eagles’ lead slightly. Facing an Eagles set point at 24-18, Gates and junior outside hitter Luke Turner denied Concordia’s outside hitter Jonathan Carlson with a block. But the Cardinal were unable to block opposite Uriel Batista from converting the Eagles’ second set point with a kill, allowing Concordia to win the set 25-20. The victory secured the Eagles the game 3-1 and the series sweep.
Although Stanford bowed out in four sets, the team demonstrated offensive skill and strong blocking. Lietzke finished Friday’s game with 48 assists and a career best seven kills, hitting .600. He and Rottman dominated on offense, working together to follow up their respective career-bests on Thursday night.
“They’re two valuable pieces,” Kosty said. “It’s all just one big, interwoven piece. Will understands what his role is. He’s the big gun, and he’s going to take a lot of big swings for us.”
“Lietzke understands that he’s got to run an offense, as opposed to one or two players. And I thought he just treated the ball really nicely over the last two nights,” Kosty said. “But they only can do what they do when Luke [Turner] passes the ball, along with Justin [Lui] passing a ball and Lamp passing jump serves.”
Rottman led the team on Friday with 14 kills, sustaining momentum from his career-best 25 kill performance the night prior. Additionally on Friday, Turner had 12 kills and Gates had nine. The Cardinal were also strong on defense; Turner recorded 16 digs and turned in his first career double-double. Hill finished the night with a career-best 10 blocks.
The Cardinal’s MPSF season continues at home on March 11 against UCLA. First serve in Maples Pavilion is scheduled for 7 p.m. PT.