They say time heals all wounds, but for the No. 5 Stanford men’s volleyball team, the longest layoff in school history brought mixed results in a treacherous road trip through Southern California.
The Cardinal certainly came out of the break fighting, pulling out a tough road split against No. 7 Pepperdine (13-11, 8-10 MPSF) and No. 2 USC (18-4, 14-4). Stanford (15-6, 12-5) tamed the Waves in five sets, 25-17, 22-25, 25-23, 20-25, 15-12, before falling to the Trojans in four, 25-22, 25-20, 15-25, 25-20.
Stanford returned from its time off with a bang, easily taking the first set from Pepperdine, 25-17, behind good team play and outstanding serving from sophomore Eric Mochalski, who had two aces that spurred a 7-1 Stanford run. Mochalski, along with senior captain Brad Lawson and sophomore Steven Irvin, was one of three Cardinal hitters who finished with double-digit kills. The trio had the mojo working early, as they combined for 10 of their 48 kills in the first set.
“I actually enjoyed the layoff between matches. It gave us a chance to recuperate and also focus on individual skills that we needed to get better at,” Lawson said.
The ease with which Stanford controlled play in the first set and gained a 16-14 advantage in the second literally burst when a low-hanging light bulb at Firestone Fieldhouse shattered after a dig by Pepperdine star Maurice Torres. The Waves would use the distraction to regroup, charging past the Cardinal to a 25-22 set victory.
The rest of the match featured a back-and-forth affair that saw 11 ties and four lead changes in the final three sets. Stanford was finally able to put Pepperdine away behind the steady and relentless play of Irvin and Lawson, who combined for 36 kills, 19 digs, five digs and five aces. With his first ace of the match, Lawson broke the Stanford record for aces in a career with 116, passing Duncan Blackman for first all-time. With the win, Stanford won at Pepperdine for just the second time since 1998.
As tough as Firestone Fieldhouse has been on the Cardinal in the past, the Trojans of USC have also never been walk in the park, as they have won the past three matchups between the two teams. Despite another strong showing from Lawson, who tallied his second consecutive double-double with 16 kills and 10 digs, Stanford was not able to find its way past the more consistent attack of the No. 2 Trojans.
Although the Cardinal considerably slowed down Trojan senior Tony Ciarelli, the dynamic outside hitter who registered 28 kills in the last meeting between the two squads, USC still hit .351 as a team, paced by redshirt sophomore Tanner Jansen. He finished with 17 kills on a sizzling .519 hitting percentage.
USC was able to take control of the match in the first set behind stellar hitting by Ciarelli, Jansen and freshman Robert Feathers. The three combined for 11 kills in the set, including three by Jansen when USC trailed 22-21.
The second set was different as USC seized control at the start, racing out to a 9-5 advantage. The Cardinal eventually battled back to tie it at 14, thanks to strong play from sophomore Brian Cook. USC would later gain a 23-20 advantage, due in part to a pair of service errors by Stanford, before Jansen again closed Stanford out with consecutive kills.
Stanford dominated the third set with efficient hitting, as the Cardinal connected on 13 of its 24 attempts in the period, highlighted by four kills from Cook.
USC never gave Stanford a chance in the fourth set, however, stifling the Cardinal attack from the get-go. The Trojans closed out Stanford in style, with senior Steven Shandrick tallying his sixth kill of the match on the final point.
Following the loss, the Cardinal dropped a game behind four other MPSF teams, including USC, for first place in the conference. Stanford has to continue improving if it wants to host the conference tournament.
“It’s going to be very important for us to stick to Stanford volleyball, which is a consistent style of play characterized by great passing, defense and smart attacking,” Lawson said.
The Cardinal is back in action tonight at 7 p.m. against Pacific.