Having already clinched the No. 3 seed in the MPSF Tournament with a win over UCLA last weekend, the No. 4 Cardinal could have mailed in a result in the regular season finale against Pacific Saturday night. Instead, Stanford came out swinging, and junior outside hitter Brad Lawson had one of his best performances of the season with 23 kills, nine digs, two blocks and a .556 hitting percentage on the way to a 3-1 victory.
Stanford (19-8, 15-7) took the first game, 25-23, as Lawson and senior outside hitter Spencer McLachlin got hot early. After junior setter Evan Barry started the game off with an ace, Lawson smashed a kill to start a run where he and McLachlin combined for kills on nine of Stanford’s 13 points.
The Tigers battled back and pulled within two points at 21-19, but Lawson and McLachlin finished the game off with three kills in the last six points. The Cardinal hit .361 in the first game, and while Pacific hit a solid .305 for the match, Stanford’s defense was just good enough.
“It’s all about rhythm,” said Stanford head coach John Kosty. “Tonight was the start of our tournament push.”
Set two saw Pacific grab an early lead and build it to five points at 19-14 before Stanford rallied and cut the deficit to one at 21-20. The teams traded points for the rest of the game, with Stanford blowing a 24-23 lead and Pacific missing on its own game point before a Lawson service error and an attack error by McLachlin tied the match at one set apiece.
But after the break, the Cardinal came out focused, shutting down the small crowd of 324 as it rolled to a five-point victory in game three and a runaway 25-16 win in the fourth game–Stanford used a five-point run to take a seven-point lead early and never looked back.
Stanford now heads into the MPSF Tournament with a two-game win streak, the team’s longest since before spring break. The Cardinal will face No. 6-seeded Long Beach State, a team that gave Stanford fits in the regular season. The No. 8 49ers (14-10, 12-10) swept the season series and also won the first matchup, 3-0.
The Cardinal will look to freshman middle blocker Eric Mochalski and junior middle Gus Ellis to neutralize Long Beach’s balanced attack. Six players on the 49er roster have at least 100 kills, led by Jim Baughman’s 305.
But it was Kyle Friend who keyed the 49ers 3-0 victory in the first meeting between the teams on Jan. 29, with 11 kills and a .500 hitting percentage.
Long Beach is no stranger to upsets this year, with several wins over teams ranked in the top-5 of the AVCA national rankings besides Stanford. Then-No. 2 UC-Irvine and then-No. 3 Pepperdine both fell victim to the 49ers. And although Long Beach could not get past No. 2 BYU two weeks ago, the 49ers finished up the regular season with two straight wins over UC-San Diego and Cal State Northridge.
It will be a big advantage for Stanford to play at home, where the Cardinal is 10-4–Long Beach is just 5-6 on the road.
“In the MPSF playoffs, you’re going to face a quality opponent,” Kosty said. “Coming into this weekend, we knew it would be Long Beach or UC-Santa Barbara, a team we split with and needed to rally from two sets down to beat. We’re all evenly-matched teams.”
The battle to win the MPSF will begin with the quarterfinals on Saturday, April 23. Other matchups include No. 1 USC hosting UCLA, BYU hosting UC-Santa Barbara and UC-Irvine hosting Hawaii. The semifinals are scheduled for Thursday, Apr. 28 and the MPSF Final–the winner of which receives an automatic berth into the NCAA Championships–will be held at the site of the higher-seeded team on Saturday, Apr. 30.
Stanford needs to make a memorable appearance in the MPSF finals–if not win the tournament outright–to have a chance at one of the at-large bids into the NCAAs, and will look to the veteran leadership of Lawson, McLachlin and senior captain Jordan Inafuku to keep the team focused for the next two weeks.