Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - April 9, 2010

Keeping title hopes from being spiked

Top-ranked Stanford hosts Pepperdine, USC with eye on NCAA Final Four in Maples

by Rick Eymer

John Kosty has been around the Stanford men's volleyball program long enough to have been to the mountain top and also to have sank into the abyss of dismal seasons. He prefers the former.

Kosty, in his fourth year as the head coach after 16 years as an assistant at Stanford, has guided the top-ranked Cardinal (13-5, 16-5) to the brink of its most successful season since winning the national title in 1998.

Stanford faces its biggest test yet this weekend when perennial national contender Pepperdine and last year's national runnerup USC visit Maples Pavilion in the final two regular-season home matches for the Cardinal, both at 7 p.m.

The Waves (12-6, 14-7) are in fourth place, a game behind Stanford. Yes, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation race is that close. The Trojans (10-8, 13-9) are in sixth and still have a mathematical chance to win the regular-season title.

BYU and Cal State Northridge (both 14-6, 19-7) are in a virtual tie for first with Stanford, .022 percentage points out of the top spot.

The Cardinal has added motivation for this weekend and for reaching the national championship game. Stanford hosts the NCAA Final Four on May 6 and 8. Senior night will be celebrated Saturday against USC, against which team rivalries were formed in high school and earlier.

The Cardinal has traveled a long way to reach its current status as best in the nation and not all of it has been smooth sailing.

Current seniors Kawika Shoji, Garrett Werner, Evan Romero, Jason Palacios and Ed Howell, who serves as team manager following a season-ending injury, won three matches (3-25) during their freshmen season, Kosty's first year as the main man.

"They realized they were good enough even then and just had to go through the process of becoming a high level team," Kosty said. "The foundation was set then."

Adding key components every year, like current juniors Spencer McLachlin and Jordan Inafuku and sophomores Erik Shoji, Brad Lawson and Gus Ellis, Stanford improved each year.

The Cardinal finished 17-11 two years ago, losing to the Matadors in the first round of the MPSF playoffs. Stanford was 21-11 a year ago, losing to the Trojans, in five sets, in the first round of the MPSF playoffs.

This is the year Stanford hopes to break through. It won't be easy as 10 of the top 11 teams in the country call the MPSF home.

"This year we've gotten into national news because we have such a competitive league," Kosty said. "Every weekend you're preparing for a couple of teams who can beat you. It's great for men's volleyball."

It helps that the United States men's Olympic volleyball team won the gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with Stanford grad Kevin Hansen part of the glory.

Hansen set all kinds of school records while he played as a setter at Stanford, but he was never part of a national championship.

Kawika Shoji, Stanford's next great setter, has taken the Cardinal to a whole new level.

"He has been the team captain for most of his career," Kosty said of Shoji. "He's an incredible leader. He leads by example and holds himself to the highest standards. He's driven to win."

A two-time All-American, Shoji is the son of legendary Hawaii women's volleyball coach Dave Shoji, who has won four national titles at the school and most recently reached the Final Four last year by winning the Stanford Regional. His younger brother, Erik, is a record-setting libero for the Cardinal and his sister, Cobey, is the director of operations for the Stanford women's volleyball team.

Shoji set the school season record for assists last year in the rally-scoring era with 1,394, a mark Hansen held previously. He has 4,038 career assists entering Friday night's game against Pepperdine. Hansen finished with 5,036.

"He remembers what its like to go 3-25," Kosty said. "He has the potential to change the outcome and make a run for everybody who didn't have this opportunity."

Last year's loss to USC proved to the Cardinal that it could compete on the national stage.

"We were up two games to zero against them and we couldn't hold on," Kosty said. "But that's when we knew we had something special and we started looking forward to this season right after that match."

Even though Stanford is riding, however slightly, above the herd, the team hasn't clinched anything but a spot in the MPSF playoffs with four matches to play.

"We're playing for home court advantage right now," Kosty said. "It's the time of the season when you have to win. You can't afford any more losses from here on out."

Only the winner of the MPSF tournament is guaranteed a trip to the Final Four, though there's an at-large berth that is usually awarded to a team from the MPSF. Stanford can't rely on that though, even if it's the host school. There are too many variables.

"If we win out, maybe," Kosty said. "There has to be separation though. There are no guarantees and the process starts with head-to-head competition. Right now, we don't hold the advantage with Cal State Northridge. It's time to win."

Should Stanford maintain its grip on the No. 1 seed for the MPSF tournament, it will be there for the taking. The Cardinal could play all three tournament games at home and then two more in the Final Four without leaving the friendly confines of Maples Pavilion.

The first day of the rest of the season is Friday, with first serve slated for 7 p.m. The ball, as the saying goes, is in Stanford's court.

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