The No. 4 Stanford men’s volleyball team was on the verge of dropping two straight home matches for the first time in over a year after a stunning 3-0 loss at the hands of No. 12 UC-San Diego. But with its back to the wall, the Cardinal rallied from a 2-1 set deficit and earned a weekend split with a five-set victory over No. 8 UC-Irvine.
Freshman outside hitter Eric Mochalski had another solid game with six kills and a .455 hitting percentage, and junior libero Erik Shoji had a typical, efficient match with 12 digs. But the star of the night for Stanford (9-3, 6-3 MPSF) was Brad Lawson.
The junior outside hitter from Honolulu had a match-high 23 kills to go with a career-high 16 digs, neutralizing a very balanced Anteater attack–five UCI players had at least 12 kills. Lawson hit .442 with just four attack errors on 43 chances.
“I think it all boils down to preparation,” Lawson said. “I spent a lot of time scouting Irvine’s attackers and also learned from the mistakes I made against UC-San Diego, which mainly included tentative serving and not working to get my feet to the ball when I was attacking.
“I even spent a little bit of time watching the national championship match from last year to motivate myself and to see what was going right for me in that match, so I could transfer it over to the match tonight,” he said.
The match was extremely tight throughout, though it didn’t look that way early. Stanford jumped out to an 8-3 lead in the first set and went on several more runs to push the score to 14-6 on a Lawson kill. The Cardinal won the first set as it continued to pull away, 25-18.
But Irvine used several runs early in the second set to get out to a 10-5 lead and didn’t look back as it took game two, 25-20.
The third set would prove to be a heartbreaker for the Card. The game was very close with 10 ties, and Irvine held a 20-17 lead before two service aces from sophomore outside hitter Jake Kneller put Stanford up, 21-20, for the first time since it led, 12-11.
After trading points, the score was knotted up at 23-23 before Irvine got a kill from junior outside hitter Kevin Carroll to earn its first set point at 24-23. Stanford got some help from the officials when Irvine’s setter misplayed a ball for a bad set to tie the score at 24, but another Carroll kill and an attack error by senior outside hitter Spencer McLachlin put Irvine up two games to one.
McLachlin struggled early in the match, particularly in the third set, when he had just one kill and a -.232 hitting percentage. But the Cardinal captain stepped up with his team trailing in the fourth set. After a kill by Irvine’s Cory Yoder knotted things up at 8-8, McLachlin ripped a kill off the block and didn’t look back, notching seven more kills in the next 16 Stanford points, including two consecutive kills to win the game and push the match to a fifth set.
“We all have confidence in Spencer’s ability,” said head coach John Kosty. “Even if he may be playing poorly at times, we’re very confident that we’re going to see the true Spencer come through. And we did in the last part of that match.”
Irvine went up 2-0 in the fifth, but by then, Stanford had regained its lost momentum and used a four-point run with Mochalski serving before putting the match away with a Mochalski kill.
Saturday’s match saw Lawson square off with Irvine’s Carson Clark, one of the top outside hitters in the country, but Lawson clearly got the better of Clark with 23 kills to Clark’s 13 and a hitting percentage over .300 points higher. But Irvine senior Jordan DuFault, a two-time All-American off to a slow start this season, picked up the slack with 14 kills and a .414 hitting percentage.
Stanford overcame Irvine’s depth Saturday, but a plucky San Diego squad shocked them on Friday.
The Cardinal never really threatened in the first set, and a five-point Triton run put the game out of reach.
Game number two was much closer–but San Diego was red-hot at the net and the game needed extra points to decide the outcome. Stanford squandered two set points, and the Tritons broke through on their third match point to take the game, 30-28.
The loss seemed to break Stanford’s resolve, as the Cardinal could not find an answer for San Diego’s attack. The Tritons hit an otherworldly .477 as a team for the match–Stanford hit .182.
“I think the biggest problems for us were energy, preparation and really just a lack of determination,” Lawson said. “I think a lot of us went into the match thinking that UC-San Diego would just roll over, but like we found out, every team is talented in the MPSF this year.”
The MPSF conference has had every member ranked in the AVCA top-15 at some point this season, and the top five teams all lost on Friday night. Stanford is currently fourth in the conference standings with plenty of games to play.
“Like Coach Kosty said in our meeting after the match [against Irvine], we’re at the point in the season where it’s either sink or swim,” Lawson said. “And although we did show tremendous heart on Saturday night, from here on out we’re going to have to play more consistent, focused volleyball.”
Next up is a trip to USC on Friday night.