Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - June 18, 2010

Award-winning Year for Stanford

NCAA title by men's volleyball team topped the list that included yet another Director's Cup

by Rick Eymer

Should the Stanford men's volleyball team serve as inspiration for a Hollywood movie, it would become an instant classic. The Cardinal season had everything: pathos, adversity, triumph and a cast of characters that lent itself to a truly heart-warming, heroic blockbuster of mythic proportions.

Our version of the Oscars is dedicated to the loving memory of a great man and a great motivator who was more than an assistant volleyball coach. He was a close friend. Al Roderigues, who passed away earlier in the season, was highly-regarded as a mentor, administrator and educator.

Roderigues never wavered in his belief in Stanford's ability to achieve the unthinkable and thus "Worst to First" was born.

The envelope, please: for the best performance by a Male Athletic team in a Drama, the 'Al' is presented to John Kosty and his ensemble of volleyball minstrels who captured the 2010 NCAA championship.

"This win represents decades of teamwork," Kosty said. "Every time a team wins a national championship it's a special journey, and with that special journey, the rewards are deep. Those are for the all those people who put in the countless hours in the gym, and this is their payoff."

National Player of the Year Kawika Shoji, Stanford's brilliant senior setter, is among a crowded field of candidates for the Best Actor 'Al.'

Long after Stanford claimed its first men's volleyball national title in 16 years, Kosty was out wandering the Maples Pavilion parking lot, alone, a lei hanging from his neck. He wore the smile of a satisfied man in the afterglow of a grand achievement.

He had been visiting with friends and thanking supporters. Kosty was exhausted, but it was a weariness borne out of happiness and the lifting of a great weight so all that was left was cherishing the moment.

Kosty, the obvious choice for the 'Al' best direction honor, curried optimism out of a dreadful season in his first year as head coach as he patiently rebuilt the program into a national powerhouse, despite the financial and scholarship limitations.

This was a work-in-progress with its beginnings in Kosty's first connection with the men's program long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. He had the Force (and a great many Jedi teachers) with him.

Kathryn Bigelow may have been the first female director to win an Oscar in Hollywood but Stanford has been producing great female directors for decades and this school year a couple of veterans took center stage. The 'Al' goes to women's tennis coach Lele Forood, who led her team to a somewhat national title.

Rankings, which are much like box office receipts, seemed to be working against the Cardinal all season. Stanford was never ranked higher than eighth before the NCAA tournament, and even the NCAA doubles champions finished the season ranked lower than when it started.

"Usually you need a favorable seeding (to avoid early elimination ala Stanford and Baylor the previous two years) but this was one of those years we knew we just had to beat everybody," Forood said.

A success right out of the Katherine Hepburn-driven "Pat and Mike" style, Stanford players were determined "to be in charge of myself," as her character says," to do something to prove to you, prove to myself . . . prove to both of us, in fact, everybody . . ."

In other words, for the best performance by a Female Athletic team in a Drama, the 'Al' is presented to Forood and her group of gritty overachievers.

"I thought we were talented enough from the get-go," Forood said. "Our freshmen (Mallory Burdette and Stacey Tan) had to learn how to play in a dual meet format and certain other things had to happen. If you had predicted we'd win it all I would not have been shocked. It would have meant we performed."

The men's volleyball and women's tennis teams assured that Stanford continue its NCAA record run of 34 academic school years with at least one national title.

There were several other championship sightings, which is just more proof that the Cardinal continues to set the standard in athletics. The school clinched its 16th consecutive Director's Cup trophy even before the final seven national titles were decided.

The next NCAA title will be Stanford's 100th overall, allowing the Cardinal to move into rarified air. Only UCLA has won more often.

There were plenty of positive spins and championship runs to the school season, and plenty more 'Al's' to be awarded.

Toby Gerhart and the football team charged into fall bent on reaching the Rose Bowl. Despite settling for the Sun Bowl, it was a football season like no other at Stanford, which ended its longest drought with a winning record for the first time in eight years.

Gerhart went from an unknown character actor to national superstar, which ended a few votes shy of the Heismann Trophy in the narrowest margin between first and second place in the history of the award.

Gerhart was more "Express" than "Rudy," and Jim Harbaugh's Cardinal was more "Facing the Giants" than "The Program;" inspirational nonetheless and worthy of attention.

For his efforts, Gerhart became the sentimental favorite to win the 'Al' for Best Performance by a Male Athlete, just edging Kawika Shoji, basketball's Landry Fields, wrestler Nick Amuchastegui, NCAA champion gymnasts Ryan Lieberman and newcomer Eddie Penev, NCAA tennis singles champion Bradley Klahn, golfer David Chung, distance runners Chris Derrick and Jake Riley, water polo's Jimmie Sandman, NCAA champion swimmer Eugene Godsoe and soccer's Bobby Warsaw.

Paul Ratcliffe's women's soccer team turned in a stunner of a season, as well, reaching the program's first national championship match. National Player of the Year Kelley O'Hara set school career and single-season marks in leading the Cardinal to a spectacular year.

Stanford's national runnerup finish in women's soccer was the first of many championship appearances for the school. Other national runnersup included men's gymnastics, women's swimming, women's basketball, women's water polo and synchronized swimming.

The 'Al' award for the Best Performance by a Female Athlete was presented to O'Hara, but it took several days sequestered in the "Grand Hotel" to decide upon the winner.

After all, NCAA swimming champs Elaine Breeden and Julia Smit, rower Elle Logan, water polo's Jessica Steffens and long jumper Arantxa King are also Olympians. The Triple Towers of Jayne Appel, Nnemkadi Ogwumike and Kayla Pedersen were also given serious consideration along with water polo's Kelly Eaton, NCAA champion gymnast Carly Janiga and softball's Alissa Haber.

Special team recognition goes out to men's swimming, women's crew and women's gymnastics for finishing among the nation's Final Four in their respective sports.

The women's squash team was sixth in the nation, men's golf reached the national quarterfinals, men's track and field finished eighth, and both women's volleyball and men's soccer made it to the Sweet Sixteen.

Other sports which qualified for the postseason include baseball, men's and women's cross country, women's track and field, men's and women's fencing, men's crew, men's and women's sailing, field hockey, women's golf, women's lacrosse and softball.

For those athletes and teams who feel slighted in the least, all we can say is you are all honored as you see your reflection in any of the Director's Cups that sparkle in Stanford's Hall of Fame Room.

Memories are like film in that they capture all the highlights of the year for future generations to enjoy.

This toast is for you, Al.

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