Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - April 27, 2012

Stanford's Shoji makes volleyball history with fourth first-team All-American honor

by Rick Eymer and Dave Kiefer

Erik Shoji has become the first player in the 22 years of American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America selections to be named to the first team all four seasons of his collegiate career.

Shoji, a libero from Honolulu, was one of three Stanford seniors named to AVCA All-America teams Thursday, joining three-time first-team choice Brad Lawson and second-team setter Evan Barry, who becomes the 23rd All-America in program history.

Only 1988 Olympic gold medalist Scott Fortune and future beach star Matt Fuerbringer were four-time All-Americans among Stanford players. But no Cardinal had received first-team honors all four years, whether from the AVCA or another organization.

"He's the greatest libero in collegiate volleyball history," Stanford coach John Kosty said. "He owns every record; he's the only four-time first-team All-America. He's incredible."

Official NCAA records only have been kept in men's volleyball since 2009, but Shoji's 1,375 career digs and single-season high of 446 digs in 2009 are believed to be the most all-time, including sideout and rally-scoring eras.

This season, Shoji is third in the nation with a 2.66 digs per set (277 total), and is second on the team in assists, with 49. His diving dig-assist against an unblocked 6-foot-9 Pepperdine hitter on Saturday was spectacular, as was his kick-assist against UC San Diego in 2009 that was No. 2 on ESPN SportsCenter's Plays of the Day.

"It's a well-deserved award," Kosty said. "His ability to pass and play defense, and his consistency, is remarkable. It's been an honor to coach him for four years."

Lawson, a 6-foot-7 outside hitter and close friend of Shoji while growing up in Honolulu, now is among four Stanford players to receive at least three first-team honors, along with Shoji, Fortune, and Fuerbringer.

Lawson, who is averaging 4.07 kills per set and has a hitting percentage of .335, recently broke two Stanford career rally-scoring era records, in kills and service aces. Lawson's totals, going into Thursday night's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament semifinal against BYU at USC's Galen Center, are 1,788 kills, and 126 aces.

"Brad is one of those special players that do not come around that often," Kosty said. "He came from a role-player with a senior-laden team and rose to the occasion to win a national championship in 2010, and now is the catalyst and leader of this team. He's a great volleyball player and an even more impressive person."

Barry leads the nation in assists per set (12.04) and has set the Cardinal to a national-leading 13.96 kills per set and a .343 hitting percentage, the second-highest in the nation.

"Evan Barry has really stepped up," Kosty said. "He has learned the game of volleyball over the past four years. This season, he's really worked hard to get himself and the team to the position we're in. The recognition is something he truly deserves."

Baseball

Alex Blandino, Brett Michael Doran and Danny Diekroeger formed a special bond early. They sat on the bench together and helped Stanford baseball coach Mark Marquess keep charts, record pitches and send offensive and/or defensive signals to the team.

Halfway into the Pac-12 Conference season, the group has become important contributors to the Cardinal postseason hopes.

Heading into last weekend's Arizona State series, the Cardinal bats seemed to be in hibernation, it was learned shortstop Lonnie Kauppila would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury and regular center fielder Jake Stewart would miss a few games because of a knee injury.

Enter Blandino, Doran and Diekroeger, the self-named "steal squad" who were suddenly needed in the lineup. They didn't just fill spots, they excelled.

"Things always happen," Cardinal coach Mark Marquess said. "A team can go into a slump or you can get an injury. When guys come off the bench and perform offensively and defensively like they did, it's a plus. You're always going to need a little help."

Blandino hit four home runs in three games, helping him earn National Player of the Week honors, and Stanford swept Arizona State, earning a series victory over the Sun Devils for the first time in four years.

Doran and Diekroeger also added their own offensive output, with Diekroeger hitting his first career home run. Doran was slotted into the leadoff spot and responded brilliantly.

The Cardinal (8-7, 26-10) takes a four-game winning streak into an important series at UCLA (11-7, 26-10), which begins Friday at 6 p.m.

"You need contributions from guys you don't necessarily start the season expecting to contribute," Marquess said. "We know they are talented, but you don't know how quickly that will translate at this level."

All three players also contributed to Stanford's 10-9 win over BYU on Tuesday. Doran had two hits and drove in three runs, Menlo School grad Diekroeger added two hits and made a game-saving defensive play and Blandino added a sacrifice fly.

"We all go out every day and we're always trying to get better," Doran said. "You always have to be ready and our opportunity came last weekend. At the beginning of the season we knew we weren't going to be the stars and guys who were playing ahead of us were better. At the same time, we knew we belonged at this level and when you do get the chance you have to be mentally tough and do the job you're supposed to do."

Doran, Diekroeger and Blandino are hitting a combined .368 with 30 RBI on the season, with Blandino leading the way.

"It's all happened so fast I'm still worried about being in the lineup every day," Blandino said. "We're all pumped. We were on the bench together at the start of the season, charting pitches, that kind of thing. Now that we're all playing and doing well, it's a boost for the team and for ourselves. It's exciting to see guys go in and do well. In our team-only meetings we always stress that we are here for each other."

They are giving Stanford a championship look again, as all three Cardinal players have found their niche for the ninth-ranked team in the nation.

"We have to keep it rolling," Diekroeger said. "It looks like our bats have picked up a little bit. I hope we can keep that going through Pac-12 play."

It's not limited to those three either. Justin Ringo, A.J. Vanegas, Garrett Hughes and others have made important contributions, something that a championship team needs over the course of a long, 54-game season.

"We trust every guy," Doran said. "Whoever plays, we play for each other. Every Pac-12 series is huge. You have to bring it every day. We get beat by San Jose State and then sweep Arizona State. We had been struggling and this week we came out and scored a lot of runs."

Stanford's team batting average slipped below .300 following the series loss to Oregon, but thanks to a .381 average against the Sun Devils and the big game against BYU, the Cardinal is hitting .297.

Austin Wilson had three hits, including a home run, and drove in a career-high five runs in Stanford's win over the Cougars on Tuesday. Hughes pitched three scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out three, to get credit for the victory.

"We need to swing the ball well and play great defense and just battle," Wilson said of facing the Bruins this weekend. "It's going to be two great teams, two great pitching staffs. We can't chase pitches. We need to see it, hit it and do our thing."

While Stanford is currently in fourth place, 3 1/2 games separate the top eight teams in the conference.

"Man, it's pretty crazy," Wilson said. "On any given series, anyone can win. There's always a team that can beat you. You have to always play with a chip on your shoulder and keep going."

"Even if you think you're the better team, the best team doesn't always win," Marquess said. "It's the team that plays the best who wins. If you don't play well, you won't win."

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