As the saying goes, it’s not about the destination but the journey along the way. For the Stanford men’s volleyball team, that destination is hopefully a national championship. Yet even if the cards don’t fall that way, the journey has been a pretty fun one thus far.
The No. 4 Cardinal (11-2, 8-1 MPSF) concluded the final two games of a ten-game road stretch in impressive fashion, taking down No. 2 UC-Irvine (10-3, 6-3) in straight sets on Friday night, 32-30, 25-15, 25-23, before fending off UC-San Diego (3-11, 1-8) in four sets, 25-17, 24-26, 25-14, 25-14, on Saturday. The wins drew the Cardinal even with top-ranked UCLA for first place in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) standings, as the Bruins were upset by Long Beach State on Tuesday.
The tone for Friday’s match was established in the first set, when the Cardinal trailed Irvine by scores of 22-16 and 24-21, but managed to rally by fending off eight set points. Two players, senior Brad Lawson and sophomore Eric Mochalski, came through in the clutch for the Cardinal during the opening set. Lawson had six kills and no errors, while Mochalski came up with five blocks down the stretch, including two on match points. Stanford was finally able to close out the set by a score of 32-30 on a kill by sophomore Steven Irvin.
“The coaches put together a great game plan so we understood what UC-Irvine wanted to do,” Mochalski said. “Our servers forced passes off of the net, which limited UC-Irvine’s options, and the outside blockers set up the block in great spots. I was just lucky I closed up some of those blocks.”
The second set lacked the drama of the first, as the Cardinal used a 15-6 run to capitalize on what had been a one-point lead in the set. Irvin and fellow sophomore Brian Cook each had four kills to lead the Stanford attack.
In the third, Irvine battled valiantly, as the Anteaters understood that they were going to have to play well to dig themselves out of a two-set hole. Despite falling behind 16-11, Irvine battled back to even the score at 22 and was down just one, 24-23, at match point. The Cardinal foiled the Anteaters’ hopes, however, and finished off its opponents on a kill by Mochalski, the man who got it all started in the opening set.
For the match, Cook led all players with 15 kills while Lawson and Irvin each contributed 12. Mochalski finished with just five kills but had a season-high eight blocks. For Irvine, junior Kevin Tillie was the leader with 10 kills.
On Saturday night, the focus for the Cardinal was to avoid a letdown against last-place UCSD, a team that has struggled to the tune of a .197 hitting percentage on the season.
The first set went according to plan for Stanford, which jumped out to a 7-2 lead early and never looked back, cruising to a 25-17 victory behind six kills from Lawson.
UCSD played substantially better in the second set, using good defense to force eight Stanford errors. The Tritons used consecutive combined blocks by junior Carl Eberts and sophomore Fred Stahl to steal a set from the Cardinal, 26-24. Sophomore Vaun Lennon had five kills to lead the Tritons in the set, while Irvin led Stanford with six.
The Cardinal rebounded and was able to take firm control of the match, holding UCSD to a .019 hitting percentage for the final two sets. UCSD finished with a .139 hitting percentage for the match, in comparison to Stanford’s stellar mark .455.
Much of this can be attributed to the play of senior setter Evan Barry, who continued his strong season with a combined 92 assists over the weekend. Barry leads the nation with 12.26 assists per set.
“I have confidence in all of my hitters,” Barry said. “The passing is so good that I always have all of my options available. It makes my job a lot easier.”
Barry and the Cardinal will finally return home this weekend to the friendly confines of Maples Pavilion, where they will take on Pepperdine and USC as the newly minted No. 1 team in the nation.
“It’s awesome. The experience doesn’t really come around that often,” Barry said of becoming No. 1. “We always like to have the mentality of being underdogs, so we are going to have to work harder to convince ourselves of that moving forward.”