Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - January 15, 2010

No more rebuilding for Stanford men's volleyball as Cardinal opens season with eye on Final Four

by Rick Eymer

Stanford men's volleyball coach John Kosty has been around the program long enough to remember the glory days. He was an assistant coach when the Cardinal finished as the national runnerup in 1993 and was on the bench again when Stanford won it all in 1997.

Kosty thinks better days are ahead after the Cardinal, ranked third nationally in a preseason poll, finished 21-11 last year. Stanford won more matches than in any season since 1997, earned its highest season-ending ranking (No. 6) since 2003, had two first-team All-Americans for the first time since 1993, and increased its victory total by 18 over just two seasons.

The Cardinal lost to USC in five sets, in the first round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament, and then watched the Trojans reach the national final — helping fuel Stanford's competitive fires for this year.

The journey begins Friday with a 7 p.m. home match against Hawaii in Maples Pavilion. The same two teams meet again at the same time and place on Saturday.

Kosty calls it the end of the rebuilding era and the beginning of becoming a perennial national title contender. It's as good a season to start as any, especially with the NCAA Final Four being held at Stanford this season for the first time ever.

"The 'era' is getting back to national prominence," Kosty said. "This senior class has put us back in the national picture and the classes from here on out have the ability to stay there. It's their obligation to uphold what the senior class has accomplished and continue it on."

First-team All-American setter Kawika Shoji and opposite hitter Evan Romero, the Cardinal's all-time kills leader in the rally-scoring era, headline a group of five seniors that also includes starting middle blocker Garrett Werner, and reserve hitters Jason Palacios and Ed Howell, who witnessed humble beginnings in a 3-25 season during their freshmen year. They are 38-22 over the past two years.

The Cardinal often started three freshmen and a sophomore last year: Erik Shoji is better by all accounts and junior Spencer McLachlin, sophomores Brad Lawson and Gus Ellis each have another year of experience.

"Everybody understands the game a little bit more now," Kosty said. They're seasoned veterans, they make better decisions. It's just a different team."

With the return of redshirts Garrett Dobbs and Charley Henrikson on the front line, plus the added experience of sophomore setter Evan Barry, Stanford has even more options. Freshman Chandler Kaaa, one of seven Hawaiians on the roster, provides depth at setter.

Palacios has worked himself into the mix behind Lawson and McLachlin at outside hitter, and junior Ian Connolly is an explosive jumper. Sophomore Dylan Kordic was limited by ankle injuries last year and is now is fully healthy; freshman Jake Kneller is a true competitor who hits with velocity; sophomore Jake Vandermeer, in a Cinderella story, made the team after playing at the club level last year; and freshman Myles Muagututia is a highly-regarded recruit who is balancing football and volleyball.

Junior Jordan Inafuku (libero) and Max Halvorson (middle blocker) will also be counted upon.

Following a trip to Provo for a two-match with BYU on Jan 22-23, Stanford plays 10 of its next 13 matches at home.

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