By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Brad Lawson was a first team All-American last year an Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Year, two-time All-American Erik Shoji is considered one of the finest liberos in the land, Spencer McLachlin returns as a fourth-year starter and Gus Ellis is back as a three-year starter.
Stanford is the defending national men's volleyball champion, returning 13 lettermen and four starters under reigning National Coach of the Year John Kosty. Yet the Cardinal, which beat visiting UC Santa Cruz, 28-26, 25-17, 25-14, Wednesday night in its season opener, was picked to finish third in the MPSF.
That's just how competitive the MPSF teams are compared to the rest of the collegiate universe. USC and UC Irvine, both members of the MPSF, are picked ahead of the fourth-ranked Cardinal. MPSF member Pepperdine ranks third nationally.
Stanford opens MPSF play next Friday with a pair of home matches against BYU, and the Cougars are ranked fifth in the nation.
Such is life without National Player of the Year Kawika Shoji, the remarkable setter and emotional leader during last year's run to the championship. Also gone are All-American Evan Romero and Garrett Werner, Stanford's all-time leader in blocks.
Both the Trojans and Anteaters are legitimate contenders for the national crown and have the history to prove it. It's not like Stanford lacks respect; it's more an indication of the awesome talent comprising the conference.
"It comes down to this: We need to mentally prepare for each match and learn how to focus," Kosty said. "The bottom line is it's a long season and we need to continually get court time to prepare for MPSF play."
The returning players, which also includes junior setter Evan Barry, senior outside hitter Ian Connolly, junior opposite Garrett Dobbs, senior middle Max Halvorseon, junior middle Charley Henrickson, senior libero Jordan Inafuku, sophomore outside hitter Jake Kneller, junior setter Dylan Koridc and junior opposite Jake Vandermeer, were all part of a team that learned how to win and what it takes to become champions. There's value in that experience.
"We have a lot of guys playing for the first time," Vandermeer said. "When you lose players to graduation and have new guys in the lineup, you're going to need a little bit of time to find your rhythm."
Vandermeer is a champion of a different sort. He's helped develop a possible cure for Leggs-Calve-Perthes, a childhood condition associated with an inadequate blood supply to part of the hip joint.
Former NFL and MLB star Bo Jackson suffered the adult version of the disease, which ended his fabulous professional sports career much too soon.
Vandermeer became one of the few undergraduates to deliver a paper. Vandermeer presented a paper to the Orthopaedic Research Society when he did so last March in New Orleans.
Vandermeer, who was a walk-on after playing for the Stanford club team as a freshman, recorded a pair of digs and served four consecutive points against the Banana Slugs.
The Cardinal will also rely on several of the eight freshmen to help it keep pace in the MPSF. Steven Irvin (5 kills, 5 digs), Brian Cook (7 kills, 4 digs) and Eric Mochalski (3 kills, ace, block, assist) each turned in solid performances.
Other freshmen include libero Grant Delgado, middle Denny Falls, setter Chandler Ka'a'a, libero Scott Sakaida and outside hitter Daniel Turbin.
"That felt good," said Cook, whose older sister Karissa plays for the Stanford women's volleyball team and who recorded his first career kill. "I got a gift on the first play I was in."
Stanford heads into its meeting with BYU having won 17 consecutive sets won to 17, dating to the first round of last year's MPSF tournament. The Cardinal had closed out last year's playoffs by winning 14 consecutive sets, a feat that hadn't been reached since UCLA closed with a 17-0 run in 1993.
"They played well," Kosty said of the freshmen. "The nicest thing I saw was they got over their nerves quickly and started playing some volleyball."
Stanford hasn't been able to practice much due to school commitments and the holidays. McLachlin did not play against UC Santa Cruz.
"You've got to get a couple of matches under your belt before you get to MPSF competition," Kosty said. "It doesn't matter how many practices you have. You can't go in cold."
Stanford takes a break from its long and winding road expedition, traveling a few mile north on El Camino Real to meet host Menlo College Saturday.
The 25th-ranked Cardinal (3-5) received several quality efforts last week at the Midlands Championships in Evanston. For the first time in program history, Stanford had two wrestlers place in the top four at the event.
Junior Nick Amuchastegui went 6-1 in the tournament and finished third at 174 pounds while sophomore Ryan Mango finished fourth at 125 pounds with a 4-2 record
Seniors Zack Giesen and Justin Paulsen, Amuchastegui and Mango are ranked among the top 10 in the most recent InterMat rankings. Amuchastegui ranks sixth, Mango moved up to No. 8, while Giesen is No. 11 at 197 pounds and Paulsen is No. 19 at 133 pounds.