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Zimmerman: Hoping for another Maples moment

What’s your favorite Maples Pavilion memory?

I bet you’re scanning your memory for a game-winning three that capped off an improbable comeback hoops victory over Cal. Or you’re remembering one of the NCAA tournament games that catalyzed one of five consecutive Final Four runs for the women’s team.

My favorite moment? It may surprise you.

I’m a hoops fan through and through. That will never change. I’ve chronicled my longing desire to witness Stanford basketball dominance, but I’ve come to accept that I was recruited as a student during a rebuilding phase. This isn’t to say that the court hasn’t provided its fair share of excitement; it’s just that for every one step forward, there seem to be three turnover-prone steps back.

However, the hardwood did its job for me in 2010, when the Stanford men’s volleyball team took destiny on a date and eventually wifed her up. On May 8, Maples was the loudest it’s been in the new millennium, as the Card captured a national title on its home floor, a feat rare in any sport.

I’m absolutely nothing more than a casual volleyball fan. I know more about the sport than the average student, but the rules only began making sense when I arrived on campus. My high school fielded an expansion team of sorts during my senior year, but it was more of a “you’ve played beach volleyball twice so congrats, you’re the starting middle blocker” kind of group than anything resembling a legitimate varsity squad.

But here I am, making the case that a relatively unknown team in a relatively unfamiliar sport has a legitimate chance to repeat the magic from two seasons ago. It’s not an easy argument to make–the talent level at the top of the national rankings is unparalleled–but it’s one that deserves attention, which it has yet to receive.

In 2010, Stanford was loaded at every position, but none more so than outside hitter. Every match was a kill fest, and the Maples floor is undoubtedly still dented from the strikes of Evan Romero, Spencer McLachlin and Brad Lawson. Perhaps the unsung hero of that match, and of the entire championship campaign, was then-sophomore libero Erik Shoji. Now a senior, Shoji ranks fifth in the nation in digs per set, and the only reason he isn’t higher is because of the quality play of his surrounding teammates. Plus, he has a highlight reel that boasts one of the most ridiculous plays you’ll ever see–a kill-preventing dig with his foot that was also a near-perfect set. It’s hard to appreciate the role of libero, as defense isn’t what packs stadiums. But Shoji, a three-time All-American, may be the most skilled player on the squad.

What’s more surprising is the emergence of senior setter Evan Barry, who earned a starting role once Kawika Shoji, Erik’s brother, graduated following the 2010 season. Barry had enormous shoes to fill but has arguably become the best setter in America, leading the nation with 11.88 assists per set. His passing ability has enabled guys like Lawson and sophomore Brian Cook to rank among the top 20 outside hitters in Division I.

To say this team is full of invaluable, unsung heroes is a gross understatement. With a slew of other veterans, including senior middle blocker Gus Ellis, this team may rival the one assembled in 2010 in terms of potential. The only problem is that the competitive balance across the nation has also improved. There are currently five teams, Stanford included, within a game of the top spot in the MPSF. Seeding for the conference tournament is crucial, especially considering the Cardinal’s home court advantage.

The gentlemen of Kappa Alpha, as much of a spectacle as they are, are among the most passionate, knowledgeable and intimidating fans in the country. If Stanford is able to secure a road to the national semifinals that travels through Palo Alto with those guys along the sidelines, the Cardinal is in pretty good shape. I’ve never tried competing at an elite level with relentless opposing fans dressed as cavemen and stormtroopers just a few feet away, but I can’t imagine it’s very fun.

With the aforementioned parity, I’d be foolish to make any guarantees. After all, as a novice supporter, I can’t even pretend to accurately break down the competition. What I can do is recognize that all the pieces that were in place in 2010 seem to be there again, which means that if I’m putting my eggs in one team’s basket this spring, I’m going with men’s volleyball.

If you’re searching for a similar Maples moment, you should, too.

Zach Zimmerman was home for break when Stanford women’s basketball ended UConn’s 90-game winning streak, but he imagines that was epic, too. Share your favorite Maples moments with him at zachz@stanford.edu or follow him on Twitter @Zach_Zimmerman.