SportsMen's Volleyball

Cardinal bite back: Men’s volleyball reverse sweeps Cougars in home finale

April 10, 2022, 8:58 p.m.

In any other season, the last game in front of a home crowd would mark a triumphant senior night. But this year’s home finale victory proved why every member of the small Cardinal team is set on returning to compete next year. 

No. 12 Stanford men’s volleyball (12-11, 4-6 MPSF) was down 2-0 early on Saturday night, but the Cardinal banded together, surging back to complete a reverse sweep against Brigham Young (8-14, 3-7 MPSF). 

The victory marks the first time since 2015 that Stanford has gone 2-0 versus BYU in a single season. 

“Gritty, courageous fortitude,” said head coach John Kosty. “These are the things that we’ve been working on all season. To have these opportunities and […] show that we can grind it out with anybody.”

Looking to repeat Friday’s dominant performance and complete the series sweep against the Cougars, Stanford entered the building on Saturday with renewed energy. It quickly became clear, however, that BYU had something different in mind. 

After the two teams traded points early in the first set, Brigham Young gained the first separation of the night, taking a 9-6 advantage. But redshirt junior libero Justin Lui stepped up, diving into center-court to dig consecutive swings from BYU outside hitter Davide Gardini and bring the Cardinal within one point. 

Later, down 18-15, junior outside hitter Will Rottman recorded his fifth kill, sending a powerful swing through a two-man block to put Stanford within striking distance. Any run that Stanford had in store was stifled by Gardini’s offensive attack, however, and the Cardinal dropped the first set 25-19.

The Cardinal looked more like themselves in the second set. After sending a freeball over the net to the Cougars, junior setter Nathan Lietzke denied the attack with his first solo block of the night. Moments later, he served an ace into the back right corner. Forcing BYU out of system, Stanford stretched the early lead to 9-3 after multiple BYU attacking errors.

Despite keeping the Cougars at bay for the majority of the set, offensive errors started to pile up for Stanford late in the set as the lead narrowed to 21-20. Junior opposite Luke Turner gave Stanford some room to breathe, rising up from the left side line for his second kill of the night. Two points later, Turner did it again, giving Stanford a 24-23 lead and a chance to even the game at one set apiece.

With a chance to ice the set, Turner couldn’t get the ball through the block. The two teams locked at 24. Gardini and Rottman traded kills to a tie at 25. But a service error from Rottman followed by an attacking error handed BYU the comeback victory in the second set.

The Cardinal are used to playing from ahead when they win, striking first in all of their previous 11 victories this year. Prior to Saturday, Stanford had not overcome a two-set deficit since 2017. This time, in front of a raucous home crowd, there was a palpable difference. 

From the huddle on the sideline, Kosty could be heard shouting, “right back, right back.” As Stanford walked back on to the court, Turner paced between his teammates, repeating, “We’re taking that back right now.” That sentiment is a part of a larger mentality that Kosty said the team has been cultivating all season.

“With a young team, they like to look behind them and worry about the last play that they made, not the next play they can make,” Kosty said. “So that’s part of the training we’re in right now — always looking forward, keeping your eyes up and staying positive.”

From that point on, Stanford refused to fold. In a set that closely mirrored the second, the Cardinal drew first blood, taking an early 10-6 lead.

The intensity almost boiled over as Rottman and Gardini exchanged words for the second time of the night, earning Rottman a yellow card. Over the course of the set, Rottman showed that he was capable of turning that fire into results, racking up six kills and a solo block in the set. Up 15-13 after a four-point run from BYU, junior middle blocker Adam Chang entered the game and made a huge dig to set up another Rottman kill, forcing a Cougar timeout. 

But BYU would not let up, putting together two more runs and narrowing the lead to 21-20. Looking to escape a fate similar to the second set, the Cardinal subbed in sophomore outside hitter Aidan Peters, who quickly recorded his first kill of the night. On set point, Stanford was bailed out by a BYU service error, and the Cardinal won 25-23.

“After the second set, we were obviously kind of down but we had no doubt that we were still going to come back and win that match,” Lui said. “It was echoed by the coaches and the players’ attitudes and body language.”

Looking to force a fifth set, the battling Cardinal started to find points easier in the fourth. Stanford’s defense made all the difference, as multiple early blocks from Lietzke and junior middle blocker Nathaniel Gates stifled the BYU offense. Peters, who stayed on the court for the rest of the game, stepped up as well, recording four kills in the set. Stanford’s versatile attack kept the Cougars guessing, and the Cardinal took the set 25-20.

“He’s a spark plug,” Kosty said of Peters. “He’s just a great volleyball player, and his defense and his intelligence helped us.”

This season, home court advantage has been a major factor for Stanford, who has an 11-2 home record and a winless record on the road.

If the crowd presence was not already noticeable at Maples, it became undeniable in the fifth set. Chants followed every point, and the home fans made the blue sea of BYU fans look more like a pond.

“No doubt, it definitely helped swing the energy our way,” Lui said.

Entering the third hour of a marathon match, the Cardinal needed all the extra energy they could get on Saturday night. The set started off quickly, with both teams trading early runs. Down 11-9 in the fifth set, which goes to only 15 points, the Cardinal dug their heels in. For three straight points, Stanford looked like a brick wall, as Gates and Lietzke came up big with blocks and Rottman added to his kill tally. With Stanford leading 14-12, the fans rose to their feet, a historic comeback victory firmly within the Cardinal’s grasp. But for the first time all night, Peters faltered — his serve hit the tape and fell back on Stanford’s side, and two swings narrowly missed the sideline. With the score knotted at 16, the battle was on.

Needing a two-point margin to win, neither team could string anything together. Attack error followed block; service error followed kill. For 13 straight points, the Cardinal and the Cougars traded blows.

Leading 23-22 and following an unforced error from BYU, Stanford had one more chance to put the game away. On Stanford’s ninth match point, Peters went back to the line, sending a jump serve just within reach of the diving Brigham Young libero. Gates and redshirt sophomore middle blocker Ethan Hill rose up, blocking a powerful Gardino swing. A Cougar miscue gave Rottman a freeball, which he sent right back at Gardino, ricocheting into the stands.

In the third longest game in MPSF history, Stanford completed its largest comeback of the season, winning 3-2. Rottman led the team with 32 kills on .391 hitting, and Lietzke totaled a season-best 58 assists.

The Cardinal will face No. 8 Pepperdine (14-9, 5-5 MPSF) in Malibu on Thursday, as they look to end the season on a hot streak heading into MPSF playoffs.

Tammer Bagdasarian '24 is a News Managing Editor at The Daily, and is planning to major in Communication and Political Science. Contact the news sections at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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