A year ago, beating a No. 1 team at home seemed impossible for Stanford men’s volleyball. Facing cuts along with 11 other sports, the Cardinal had a mere three wins and were unable to host fans due to the ongoing pandemic.
But beating the top team became a reality on Friday. Earning its first MPSF win of the season and first victory over a No. 1 opponent since 2016, unranked Stanford (9-8, 1-3 MPSF) outlasted top-ranked UCLA (13-3, 5-1 MPSF) in five sets in front of a raucous crowd at Maples Pavilion.
“We came in wanting to play like we practice, and that’s exactly what we did,” said head coach John Kosty. “It’s taken us a while to get here. But it was just fun to watch them play at the level I know they can play at.”
The two teams met again the following night, but the Cardinal were unable to replicate their prior success. UCLA took home the win 3-1 on Saturday despite closely contested sets.
Friday night fight
(25-20, 22-25, 25-18, 23-25, 15-12)
Stanford, the clear underdog going into the weekend after four straight losses to unranked opponents, came out fighting in the first set. Though the two teams traded points throughout, a three-point serving run by sophomore setter Chris Kelly allowed Stanford to pull ahead late in the set. A kill by opposite outside hitter Luke Turner gave the Cardinal set point, which they were able to convert two points later following a service error by UCLA opposite Kevin Kobrine. Stanford recorded 10 kills and a combined hitting percentage of .500 to win the set 25-20.
The second set followed a similar pattern, with the Bruins and Cardinal alternating points. Aggressive play and service errors on both sides again produced a tight set. UCLA’s outside hitter Ethan Champlin and middle blocker Guy Genis were critical at the net, allowing the Bruins to take the set 25-22 and tie the match at 1-1.
Aces from junior outside hitters Will Rottman and Kevin Lamp helped the Cardinal seize the lead in the third set and hold onto it, even as UCLA applied relentless pressure at the net. A four-point serving run by Rottman invigorated the Cardinal late in the set. Although the Bruins managed to save a set point, a kill from Turner gave Stanford the third set, 25-22.
In the fourth set, the Bruins pushed back against the Cardinal’s momentum and raced out to a 9-5 lead. The Cardinal fought back to close the gap, taking advantage of UCLA’s errors to get themselves back in the set and tie the score at 23. The Bruins edged Stanford out 25-23, however, tying the match at 2-2 and forcing a deciding fifth set.
On the final point of the fourth set, Rottman appeared to hurt his leg, and in between sets he received treatment from an athletic trainer. Thankfully for the Cardinal, Rottman returned for the entire fifth set, and his play seemed uncompromised.
Stanford quickly found itself down in the final set, with UCLA leading 7-4, but rallied to get back into the match. A kill from Rottman tied the score at 7-7, and the Bruins never managed to pull ahead again. UCLA errors fed the Cardinal’s lead, bringing on match point. While the Bruins denied one match point at 14-11, they failed to do so a second time. Rottman, a powerhouse on Friday night with 18 kills, managed one final kill to give Stanford the set and the match at 15-12.
“That fifth set was awesome,” Kosty said. “It showed our grit and determination and our resiliency. We finished strong, and that’s something that we need to continue to do.”
Along with Rottman’s 18 kills, Lamp and Turner posted 12 each. Junior setter Nathan Lietzke led the team with 41 assists. Junior middle blocker Nathaniel Gates managed four blocks, and Lamp had three. The Cardinal also showed a strong service game; Rottman finished the match with four aces and Lamp with three.
“Even though they are juniors, they haven’t played all that much at a level, and in a capacity like this, against UCLA,” Kosty said of his relatively young roster.
Kosty added that Turner’s contributions to the victory on both offense and defense were crucial: “He just played a really solid game and held his composure and did his job really well, and brought us home.”
The win was also a triumphant storyline for redshirt sophomore middle blocker Ethan Hill, who transferred to Stanford from UCLA for the 2020-21 school year.
“It’s fun to see all those guys again and compete with them,” Hill said, adding that he scouted his former teammate Merrick McHenry ahead of the series. “Looking back at Merrick, who I was matched up against, I mean, that’s such a blast.”
Bruins bite back
(25-20, 13-25, 23-25, 25-27)
The Cardinal picked up right where they left off on Saturday night. Both teams traded punches early in the first set, with Stanford evening the score at 8-8 on a powerful kill from Turner. An ace from Hill gave the Cardinal their first separation of the night, putting Stanford ahead 13-11. Tied at 16 and facing a small surge from the Bruins, the Cardinal stuck to what won them the game on Friday: clean play. While the Bruins committed multiple errors over the final stretch, Stanford relied on a balanced offensive attack and strategic passing. On set point, Lamp rose up from the left side and hit a cross-court ball that landed just inside the top-right corner and earned the Cardinal the 1-0 set lead.
In the second set, the Bruins looked like a different team. UCLA completely silenced Stanford’s offensive attack, recording seven blocks in what quickly became the most lopsided set of the night. Up 24-13, UCLA put the nail in the coffin, sending a ball right into Lietzke’s face and evening the score at one set apiece.
Putting the second set quickly out of mind, the Cardinal jumped out to a hot start in the third. Hill sent a precise ball to the right edge just beyond the Bruins’ reach to retain the early 3-2 lead. Three points later, Turner and Rottman did nearly the same on consecutive points, as Stanford continued to make its mark from the left sideline. Avoiding the high hands of the UCLA middle blockers with high swings and capitalizing on gritty defense, the Cardinal took a narrow 14-13 lead into a timeout. Facing a critical point in the game down 17-16, senior libero Justin Lui dug a deep back row serve from the Bruins, setting Rottman up for the kill.
From then on, it was Rottman versus UCLA. The outside hitter recorded the next 3 points for the Cardinal, but the Bruins would not go down without a fight. Both teams traded points back and forth to a 24-23 UCLA lead. With the set on the line, Lui laid out for two diving digs, but the Cardinal were unable to block a third consecutive swing from UCLA and fell 25-23.
Securing wins late in close sets has been a recurring challenge for Stanford this season. Nevertheless, Kosty praised the team’s late-game progress.
“We’re in a much better position to win close sets than we were earlier this season,” Kosty said. “Trust what you’ve learned and trust that you’re good volleyball players, and you’ll understand what to do when that opportunity presents itself.”
Down 2-1 and heading into the fourth facing an uphill battle, the Cardinal managed to muster up a fight. But a steady attack and a tidier offense from UCLA forced Stanford to fight from behind throughout the first half of the set. Down 19-16 and attempting to switch up the strategy, the Cardinal brought in middle blocker Adam Chang to serve for the third time that night. The junior delivered a deep ball barely dug by the UCLA libero. Despite losing the point, the moment was a turning point for the Stanford offense, which narrowed the lead to one following three straight points from Rottman.
Down 22-21, Kosty substituted in Kelly to serve. He delivered, sending two well-placed float serves just beyond the 10-foot line and setting the Cardinal up for consecutive kills to go up 24-23.
Then came two cross-court kills from the Bruins. Tied at 25 with the game on the line, Maples came to life, the crowd rising to its feet as Lamp delivered a jump serve down the line. Stanford and UCLA met at the net. Jousting for the lead, the ball fell just inside the Cardinal sideline as Stanford pleaded for a lift call against the Bruins, to no avail. On the next serve, UCLA chopped the ball to a diving Lui at the 10-foot line, moving the Cardinal out of system and putting the game away with a swing into the open court.
“I was proud of our guys for how they fought all night long,” Kosty said. “They never gave up, and even when UCLA would grab a lead, we would come storming back and make it a deuce game. And at that point, anybody can win.”
In the 3-1 loss, Stanford hit a combined .312 and racked up 53 team kills led by Rottman and Turner, who recorded 16 and 14, respectively. Stanford’s next conference game will come on March 25 against No. 6 USC (15-3, 3-1 MPSF) in Maples Pavilion.
“We’re gonna keep on getting better, keep on practicing — that’s our mindset,” Hill said. “And if we play like we did today, I think we’ve got a very good chance.”