The second-seeded Stanford men’s volleyball team is in Los Angeles tonight for the semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) tournament, needing two more wins to garner an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Cardinal (21-6, 17-5 MPSF) will take on the third-seeded BYU Cougars (24-6, 17-5) for the third time this season for a chance at the finals in what promises to be one of the more exciting matches of the season.
The eventual champion of the MPSF tournament will have earned it, considering that the remaining teams in the tournament comprise the top four teams in the country — USC, UC-Irvine, Stanford and BYU are Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4, respectively, in the latest national rankings. The good news for Cardinal fans, and fans of the MPSF in general, is that the at-large bid to the four-team NCAA tournament will almost definitely come from the MPSF.
The flipside of that, however, is not so inviting: Stanford will have to beat two of the four best teams in the country to assure itself a place in the NCAA tournament. The Cardinal sports an overall record of 3-3 against the rest of the remaining field, defeating BYU twice during a season-changing weekend in Provo earlier this year along with a split against Irvine and a 0-2 mark against USC.
That being said, the story of the match between Stanford and BYU promises to be much different this time around. When these two teams last met on consecutive nights in early February, BYU was at a significant disadvantage despite playing on its home floor — the Cougars were without first-team All-MPSF outside hitter Taylor Sander, who leads the MPSF and is second in the nation with 4.80 kills per set. Stanford was able to exploit this weakness in the Cougars’ attack, holding BYU to a .272 hitting percentage for the weekend.
Stanford’s calling cards all season long have been defense and superior passing. The return of Sander to the lineup significantly increases the challenge for the Cardinal, which will be forced to contend with a BYU team that already features five other All-MPSF performers — middle blockers Futi Tavana and Russell Lavaja, opposite Robb Stowell, setter Joe Kauliakamoa and outside hitter Josue Rivera. BYU’s hitting percentage as a team for the season is third-best in the country at .326. Whether or not Stanford can consistently stymie the now-healthy BYU attack will be the key to the match.
“If we can serve tough and limit our errors, and consistently put up good balls for Evan Barry to set, then I think we should have a lot of success,” said sophomore outside hitter Steven Irvin.
Despite all the matchup problems Stanford will have to contend with, BYU’s task to stop its opponent will be no easier. In fact, Stanford is one of just three teams, along with BYU and USC, that features six all-conference selections, led as always by first-team performers and Stanford record holders Brad Lawson and Erik Shoji. In addition to Lawson and Shoji, senior setter Evan Barry and sophomores Brian Cook, Eric Mochalski and Irvin were All-MPSF selections.
“[Today's match] is going to come down to serving, passing and smart attacking,” Lawson said. “BYU is a notoriously great blocking team and they also have some potent weapons from the service line. If we can control their serves and pass well, we’ll be able to keep their big block guessing, which will make it a lot easier for us to side out and score points.”
From a statistical standpoint, Stanford’s offense has been even more efficient than BYU’s — Stanford sits second in the country with a team hitting percentage of .343 for the season, with four of the Cardinal’s top five hitters sporting hitting percentages above .320. If the Cougars want to come away with better results than the last time they matched up with the Cardinal, they will have to come prepared to face an efficient and diverse offense.
A win for the Cardinal in Thursday’s semifinal would probably guarantee the Cardinal a bid to the NCAA tournament if top-ranked USC defeats Irvine, because Stanford would then, at worst, have finished second in the conference and second in the conference tournament. But to say Saturday’s final is not important would be a complete misjudgment. Stanford has not had much success against the Trojans this season, and an improved result could do wonders for the team’s confidence heading into a possible NCAA tournament showdown.
A win by Irvine on Thursday, however, would turn the landscape upside down. The winner of the final would obviously advance to the tournament, but a loss by Irvine in the final would complicate things severely. Winning in the semifinals would mean that the Anteaters would hold a 2-1 series advantage over the Trojans this season, something the NCAA tournament committee would certainly have to take into account.
In order to be in the mix, though, the Cardinal must first take care of business against BYU. Stanford’s road to the tournament resumes today at 5 p.m. at the Galen Center in Los Angeles.