In the world of Division I men’s volleyball, there’s a new sheriff in town: the Stanford Cardinal. Following a pivotal weekend road sweep of then-No. 2 UC-Irvine and UC-San Diego, Stanford (11-2, 8-1 MPSF) has risen to the No. 1 spot in the national rankings after extending its road and overall winning streaks to seven. The wins last weekend moved the Cardinal into a tie in the loss column with UCLA for first place in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), sitting just a half-game back of the Bruins overall.
“Being No. 1 is a great honor, but it takes a lot of work to get there and a lot of work to stay there. It’s an honor, but our goal is to be the best team at the end of the season,” said head coach John Kosty.
Despite this successful start to the season, navigating the MPSF can be a long and arduous journey, as Kosty knows well. This weekend, the journey continues as No. 10 Pepperdine and No. 6 USC, two highly competitive teams, come to town in Stanford’s first two home conference matches of the season.
Stanford will take on Pepperdine (7-5, 5-4) on Friday night, a team that has gone cold of late, losing four of its past six matches. However, the Waves were able to snap a three-match losing streak last week in a non-conference match against Cal Baptist, and a win against the Cardinal would cement Pepperdine’s status as an upper-tier team in the MPSF.
Pepperdine is led by the two-headed monster of freshman sensation Josh Taylor and junior All-MPSF performer Maurice Torres. Taylor is averaging 3.96 kills per set, good for fourth in the MPSF, while Torres’ average of 3.80 is seventh in the conference. Torres also leads the team in digs and service aces.
Aside from Taylor and Torres, redshirt senior Chase Ross and senior Matt Pollock have also been important contributors for Pepperdine. Ross is third on the team with 2.04 kills per set and also averages better than a dig per set. Pollock ranks just fourth on the team with 1.87 kills per set, but he ranks first in hitting percentage at .442 and blocks with 47. Freshman setter Matt West, who ranks second in the conference with 11.33 assists per set, runs Pepperdine’s offense.
Regardless of what happens against Pepperdine on Friday, the Cardinal must come prepared to face No. 6 USC (7-4, 5-4) on Saturday. The Trojans are no strangers to being ranked No. 1, having spent much of last season atop the rankings. USC enters the weekend as the winner of four of its last five matches, including a sweep of non-conference opponent Hope International last week.
USC features a strong trio of starters that may challenge the Card. Senior Tony Ciarelli, redshirt sophomore Tanner Jansen and redshirt junior Steven Mochalski, the brother of Stanford sophomore middle blocker Eric Mochalski, are all averaging better than 2.5 kills per set. The brotherly competition at the net should be a fun matchup to watch on Saturday.
“On the court, he’s just another player to me, but off the court we are each other’s biggest fans,” Eric Mochalski said.
Freshman setter Micah Christenson runs the USC attack, and he ranks third in the MPSF with 11.15 assists per set, behind only West and Stanford’s Evan Barry. One other player to watch for USC is six-foot-eight freshman Robert Feathers, who leads the MPSF with a 1.77 blocks-per-set average.
For the Cardinal to have success this weekend, great team passing will have to continue to be Stanford’s calling card. Superior ball control has allowed the team to dictate points against its opponents for much of the season. It has allowed Stanford to post a national-best 14.1 kills per set, on a startlingly efficient .365 team hitting percentage, good for second in the country.
“The thing with playing Pepperdine and USC after these five straight weekends on the road is that we are playing two great teams with a lot of volleyball history,” Kosty said. “We know we will be playing two teams this weekend that are better than the ones we’ve been seeing on tape this week.”
The top team in the country will be in action against Pepperdine on Friday and USC on Saturday, with both matches starting at 7 p.m. in Maples Pavilion.