"When you have a league as strong as this, I don't think anybody goes into a season saying they expect to be No. 1," Stanford associate head coach Ken Shibuya said. "Everybody's just trying to find their way for the first few weeks."
But Stanford clearly has found its rhythm heading into its conference home opening weekend — Friday against No. 10 Pepperdine and Saturday against No. 6 USC at Maples Pavilion. Both matches begin at 7 p.m.
"We knew going into this season we would have a good team," Stanford head coach John Kosty said. "But as we went through that long road trip, we had our ups and downs. But to the team's credit, it came out 8-2. That has to do with the mental and physical preparation to be ready to handle such a chore."
Despite no favors from Mountain Pacific Sports Federation schedule makers — every other member of the 12-team conference has played at least three at home — Stanford still emerged with an 8-1 record, and is tied for first in the loss column with UCLA (9-1).
The Cardinal has returning first-team All-Americans Brad Lawson, at outside hitter, and Erik Shoji, at libero. But the team struggled toward the end of last season, which ended in the first round of the MPSF tournament, far short of matching its 2010 national championship.
With three sophomores — hitters Brian Cook and Steven Irvin, and middle blocker Eric Mochalski — expected to play prominent roles, and with Lawson sidelined for the entire fall because of injury, nothing seemed sure.
Help may have come in the form of misfortune. On January 27, Stanford dropped to 4-2 by losing decisively to Penn State in a rematch of the 2010 NCAA final. The next day, at the same Ohio State tournament, senior setter Evan Barry crumpled to the ground late in the third set against the defending champion Buckeyes with a leg injury.
The Cardinal lost the set to fall behind, 2-1, but senior replacement Dylan Kordic, in his first action at setter against a Division I team, rallied Stanford to a five-set victory. Barry may have been well enough to return, but with the way Kordic played and the way the team responded, Barry remained on the bench.
Barry returned for the following matches — a pair at then-No. 1 BYU — and Stanford won both. In the coming weeks, the Cardinal would beat No. 2 UC Irvine as well as perennial Stanford killers Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State in an ongoing seven-match winning streak.
Barry leads the nation in assists per set (12.26), has set the Cardinal to the second-highest hitting percentage in the country (.365), and is the reigning MPSF Player of the Week. He has been described as the catalyst to the Cardinal's success.
"I'm most happy with the progress of Evan Barry," Kosty said. "He's leading the team, and making the right decisions. The record shows it and the hitting percentage shows it. We knew Evan had it in him."
The danger now is contentment. The road trip ended, the team endured and reached No. 1. But can it maintain the fire?
NOTES: In winning MPSF honors, Barry set Stanford to a combined hitting percentage of .459, and had 92 assists, 10 digs and five blocks in the two matches to capture the weekly honor. Barry distributed the ball evenly while keeping the block off each hitter. In both matches, the 3-0 sweep of UCI and the 3-1 victory over UCSD, Stanford had three hitters with at least 10 kills and hitting percentages far above .300. Against UCI, Cook had 15 kills and a .592 percentage, Irvin 12 and.588, and Lawson 12 and .321. Against UCSD, Barry set Lawson to .556, Irvin to .435, and Cook to .393, while they combined for 49 kills.
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