The great thing about sports is that you never know what’s going to happen.
In a match that appeared headed for a routine sweep, the Stanford men’s volleyball team suddenly found itself with its back up against the wall on Saturday night, forced to fight off two match points in the final set. Much to the relief of the raucous home crowd, the No. 5 Cardinal (18-6, 15-5 MPSF) prevailed against the ever-resilient No. 12 Cal State-Northridge Matadors (11-16, 7-13) in five epic sets, 25-19, 25-21, 22-25, 22-25, 19-17.
The victory pushed Stanford’s winning streak to three, and more importantly, kept the team in contention for the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
For much of the match, the Cardinal appeared to be in firm control. Sophomore Brian Cook set the tone with his match-high 23 kills, senior setter Evan Barry kept the offense cruising and Northridge never led in either of the first two sets. With star freshman Julius Hoefer struggling to the tune of a .148 hitting percentage and after a series of verbal exchanges between Northridge players and the Stanford student section, it did not look as though the Matadors were long for the match.
Enter 6-foot-4 junior John Baker, who completely changed the dynamic of the match. Baker tallied 20 kills in the final three sets to lead a furious Matador charge that saw the visitors rally from 16-14 deficits in both the third and fourth sets to force the final game.
The fifth set was a back-and-forth affair in which neither team seemed to be able to gain any separation, until a kill by sophomore Brandon Lebrock gave the Matadors a 12-10 advantage. Suddenly, the match that had looked all but clinched for the Cardinal nearly an hour earlier was in serious jeopardy of slipping away.
Luckily for Stanford, there would be multiple heroes on the night. Senior libero Erik Shoji showed why he is a three time All-American and the soon-to-be MPSF Player of the Week, as the veteran racked up 16 digs and prolonged numerous rallies.
With the score at 12-11 following a Lebrock service error, Stanford sophomore Steven Irvin hit a booming ace to even the set at 12 apiece. With the set even at 13, Baker came through with his 20th kill of the match, bringing the Matadors to the brink of completing the comeback.
Stanford fought back once more, extending the match on senior Brad Lawson’s 18th kill of the evening. The Cardinal immediately found itself on the edge of defeat following an errant swing by Cook.
But losing was not in the cards for Stanford, as Barry, who played a flawless fifth set, came up with the kill on the fake set to give the Cardinal another shot at 15-15. After an attack error by Baker, it was Northridge’s turn to stave off defeat. Lebrock again came up with the kill Northridge needed to even the match at 16. Stanford was able to side out once again, this time on an emphatic kill by sophomore Eric Mochalski, before Lebrock once again responded, registering his 21st and final kill of the match.
Stanford was finally able to break through thanks to another beautiful set by Barry and the kill by Irvin before closing the Matadors on a block of Baker by senior Gus Ellis and Cook.
For the match, Lawson, Irvin and Mochalski joined Cook in recording double-digit kills with 18, 16 and 13, respectively, while Barry tallied 66 assists.
“That was such a fun match to be part of,” said Mochalski, who at one point dove into the stands in an attempt to prolong a point. “Northridge did a great job bouncing back after the first two games. But towards the end of the fifth, Barry took his game to another level and willed us to the end.”