A year that began with national title aspirations hasn’t gone according to plan recently for the Stanford men’s volleyball team. After suffering an early-season loss to No. 3 UCLA, the Cardinal dropped another match to the No. 5 Penn State Nittany Lions last Friday. However, the No. 7 Cardinal redeemed itself with an impressive win over the defending national champion No. 9 Ohio State Buckeyes at their arena. The Cardinal will look to take this momentum into Provo, Utah, as the team gets set to face off against a very tough BYU squad.
After losing to UC-Irvine in the first game of the year, the No. 1 BYU Cougars (6-1, 4-0 MPSF) have been nearly unstoppable. They have won their last six matches in a row, most recently beating USC 3-1 and 3-2 in a pair of weekend matches. This streak includes two payback wins over the formerly No. 1 Anteaters. The Cardinal (5-2, 2-1) will look to hand the Cougars their second and third losses of the year this weekend in a highly anticipated matchup between two men’s volleyball juggernauts.
Leading a balanced offensive attack for the Cougars are sophomore outside hitter Taylor Sander and senior opposite Robb Stowell. Sander is posting an unprecedented 4.90 kills-per-set mark, while the 6-foot-7 Stowell is not far behind with 3.58. The pair has wreaked havoc on opposing defenses, using their above-average height and athleticism to overwhelm their opponents. In their last match against USC, the duo combined for 46 kills.
Stanford will need to step up on defense to stop the talented BYU attack. This daunting task rests primarily on the shoulders of Stanford middle blockers Gus Ellis and Denny Fells. However, the team will also need a strong effort from sophomore outside hitter Eric Mochalski, who leads the team in blocks this season with 15.
While the Cougars are known for their offensive firepower, they boast one of the nation’s best defensive units as well. Junior middle blocker Russ Lavaja leads the team with 42 blocks and a 1.45 blocks-per-set average. Lavaja is one of the nation’s best defensive middle blockers, and he will not make things easy for the Stanford offense.
Still, the Cardinal players like their chances. Senior captain Brad Lawson summed it up, saying, “we’ve been watching them on film all week. We know they have great blocking, great attacking, but we’re ready for the challenge.”
Lawson, who has easily been Stanford’s most dominant player this year, will lead the offensive charge. Lawson leads the Card in total kills (170) and kills per set (3.52). He is clearly looking to earn a spot on this year’s AVCA All-American First Team, just as he did last season. A strong effort against the No. 1 Cougars would certainly help his case, but Lawson is more concerned with his team. Pitching in for the Card is sophomore outside hitter Brian Cook. He leads the team in hitting percentage at a solid .350 mark and is not far behind Lawson in kills per set with 3.20. Both Cook and Lawson recorded 17 kills in their last match against USC, propelling Stanford to a much-needed victory. The pair will need to bring their A-game if the Card wants to upset BYU.
“It’s a test, but I think [we] are excited to play such a talented volleyball team,” Lawson said.
As far as tests are concerned, a midterm exam may more accurately describe this contest. Stanford has yet to play a team as talented as BYU, and might not for the rest of the year. Still, the Cardinal has the discipline and talent to beat any team in the country, including the Cougars, and a sweep of BYU this weekend would certainly turn some heads in the world of men’s volleyball. These two matches start a stretch of 18-straight conference matches to finish the regular season, so positioning in the MPSF will be on the line as well.
The Cougars and Cardinal square off on Friday and Saturday night. Both matches will begin at 6 p.m. P.T.