Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - May 14, 2010

Fairy tale ending for Stanford

Cardinal keeps a streak alive and honors a coach by winning national title

by Rick Eymer

John Kosty had been hearing it from some of the other coaches in the department the past couple of weeks. The pressure was on to continue the streak of consecutive academic school years with at least one NCAA title.

As if the Stanford men's volleyball team needed any more motivation. All the elements of a made-for-TV inspirational movie based on actual events were in place and it was four years in the making.

"It's been a fairy tale," Stanford senior opposite Evan Romero said. "We wanted to end this the right way."

It ended perfectly.

Here's how Cardinal senior setter and national Player of the Year Kawika Shoji described it:

"I ran down a dig and I passed it cross court. Then I watched Brad (Lawson) fly up in slow motion and crush it on the other side of the court."

And thus Stanford's run to the NCAA championship ended, not with a whimper but with a bang. The top-ranked Cardinal beat Penn State, 30-25, 30-20, 30-18, on Saturday before a record home crowd of 6,635 excited fans at Maples Pavilion to write finish to one of the more improbable story lines in college sports lore.

"It's been a long road for us," Kosty said. "It's a tribute to how hard this team worked, how hard everybody in the program worked to put this team on the court."

There was a touch of sadness amidst a sea of celebration as the Cardinal took a moment, in the privacy of its own locker room, to honor one of its fallen heroes. Long-time assistant coach Al Roderigues passed away from stomach cancer on March 19 but not before Stanford found itself ranked No. 1 in the nation for the first time in nine years.

Saturday the Cardinal put the finishing touches on its journey from "Worst to First," a phrase Roderigues coined while Stanford struggled to a 3-25 finish in 2007, when the current seniors were freshmen.

"We paid tribute to Al in the locker room," said Kosty, who was in his first year as head coach in 2007. "He was with us. He would have hugged every single one of these guys with a smile and rosy cheeks. He appeared calm but you knew when he was worked up when his cheeks turned red."

The program also paid tribute to the history of Stanford athletics. The championship victory meant the school extended a streak of 34 consecutive school years that it has won a national championship in any sport, an ongoing NCAA record.

The women's soccer team, women's basketball, women's swimming and men's gymnastics teams each finished second in the nation this year, so his fellow coaches kept reminding Kosty of the necessity of winning.

There were days when Stanford played in front of a few diehard fans in ancient Burnham Pavilion, where the hum of the computer keeping the statistics could be heard during timeouts.

It got a little better the next year when Stanford won five of its first seven matches dispelled notions that, perhaps, the program was in its death throes.

And the cast of characters that began gathering each had their own distinctive flavor. On Nov. 11, 2006, then-coach Don Shaw announced the signings of Kawika Shoji, Garrett Werner and Ed Howell. Two weeks later Shaw announced his retirement. Evan Romero was almost an afterthought.

Shoji grew up in Hawaii, a place where only football comes close to volleyball as a sporting interest. He grew up the son of legendary Hawaii women's volleyball coach Dave Shoji (Kawika means "Dave" in Hawaiian). He lived and breathed the sport and grew into one of its best players.

After winning three matches his first year, did Shoji think this might happen?

"I had hoped; I dreamed," he said. "I don't know if I expected it. I knew a lot of hard work would get us far. We didn't take a day off"

Shoji spent hours in the video room over the years trying to improve his technique and helping his teammates do the same. The off-season conditioning, far away from the bright lights of Maples, was another factor in Stanford's success.

"We understood we had to get better every day," Shoji said. "If you think otherwise, there's another team ready to move past you."

Romero arrived at Stanford as a brash young man full of confidence but not many skills. He had raw talent but needed a lot of work.

"I told coach we were going to win the national title my first year here and you saw how that worked out," he said. "I told coach a lot of things. But he instilled confidence in us and said it would be a process."

Shaw and former men's coach Rueben Nieves, who was at the helm in 1997 when Stanford last won the national title, were in attendance Saturday as were a lot of alumni.

"That's what makes this one so sweet," Kosty said. "It's about the program and the players over the years that didn't have this opportunity. This is a lot about Stanford volleyball, women and men. Don Shaw did an incredible job with the women's program, probably something that has not been done again."

"Coach mentioned everybody who helped the program but he forgot to mention himself," Romero said. "He recruited amazing student-athletes and worked as hard as anybody. He showed extreme patience with us. We couldn't want anything more."

Lawson recorded 24 kills on 28 total attacks, with one hitting error, in leading Stanford to the NCAA championship in its first appearance in the Final Four since 1997.

Spencer McLachlin, whose father Chris McLachlin helped start the men's program at Stanford, added 12 kills and Romero had 11 as the Cardinal (24-6) won their first title since 1997. National Player of the Year Kawika Shoji added 47 assists and 10 digs as Stanford hit an improbable .495 as a team, with Lawson hitting an amazing .821.

Shoji and Lawson shared the NCAA Championships MVP trophy.

Stanford libero Erik Shoji had 10 digs, including several that kept rallies alive.

The first set was tied at 19-all before Stanford ran off a short run. Penn State also held a lead in the second set at 15-13 before Romero and Lawson sparked a four-point run that gave the Cardinal the lead for good. Stanford never trailed in the third set.

And the rest, they say, is history.

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