In a weekend dominated by great moments in the NFL playoffs, perhaps the most exciting match was the Saturday showdown between the Stanford men’s volleyball team and the University of the Pacific. Despite facing six match points, the Cardinal was able to rally back and win a thrilling five-set battle 3-2.
No. 3 Stanford (4-0, 1-0 MPSF) opened its weekend against UC-Santa Cruz, ranked fourth in Div. III. The match served as a good opportunity for the Cardinal to get a final tune-up before conference play began, with all 18 players on the Stanford roster getting a chance to shine.
Sophomore middle blocker Sean Kemper, who recorded two blocks and a kill on his only attack, commented that the relative ease Stanford had with the Banana Slugs played a large role in their performance against No. 15 Pacific, as “the starters only had to play one set, allowing them to be fresh for the five sets the next day.”
Freshman setter Joe Ctvrtlik, making his collegiate debut, had an impressive performance after subbing in for fellow freshman James Shaw in the second set, putting up a match-high 17 assists and seven digs, while also chipping in two aces and three kills. He even chipped in a block despite standing just 6-feet tall.
The dominant 25-18, 25-20, 25-12 victory gave the Cardinal confidence entering its matchup with the Tigers. It was apparent from the start, however, that the game was going to be a struggle.
The first set was back-and-forth, with both teams unable to get an advantage on the other. The largest separation between the teams was just three points, but the Cardinal was able to maintain either a lead or a tie for the entire set, closing the Tigers out 25-23 on a block by junior outside hitter Brian Cook and sophomore middle blocker Spencer Haly.
The second set appeared to be more of the same, with both teams exchanging points, but Pacific soon seized control with a powerful 7-2 run. The Cardinal was unable to close the gap, ultimately dropping the set 25-17.
Stanford started the third set on a hot streak, but the Tigers swiftly fought themselves back into the game. Not to be undone, Stanford uncorked a 4-0 run, which Pacific immediately answered with a 5-0 run of their own, tying the score at 20 apiece. The score soon ballooned to 25-all, at which point Pacific’s junior middle blocker Christian Ahlin recorded two straight kills to give Pacific the set and a 2-1 match advantage.
Knowing it needed a fourth-set victory to preserve its unbeaten season, Stanford refused to let come down to another close ending. With the Tigers holding a 8-7 lead, Stanford uncorked a quick 7-1 run, giving the Cardinal a lead it would not relinquish, as Stanford took the fourth set 25-17.
Accordingly, the match came down the fifth and final set, with both teams fired up at the chance to take the other down. The Tigers came out with a new ferocity, opening the set with three straight kills, putting Stanford in a deep opening hole.
Down 14-11 and on the brink of defeat, Stanford was able to galvanize itself, converting on three straight match-points to tie the score at 14. Pacific and Stanford began to trade points, with the Tigers serving for two more match points before allowing the Cardinal to tie the game back up.
Facing a 17-16 deficit and Pacific’s sixth match point of the game, the Cardinal offense finally broke out. Shaw was somehow able to reach a wayward pass over the net, flicking it to junior middle blocker Eric Mochalski who unleashed a vicious kill, tying the game at 17. Mochalski followed that with another kill, giving the Cardinal its first lead of the set and first match-point opportunity.
This was not something the Cardinal was willing to waste, a fact junior opposite Daniel Tublin made abundantly clear, smashing home the game-winning kill and completing the incredible comeback.
Tublin painted the best picture of the moment: “James [Shaw] gave me a rear back set, and I just aimed high. It hit their hands, and it fell through to the ground. No feeling like it: having the chance to close out a match where the whole team made an unreal comeback. I yelled in relief and was quickly mobbed by my team. That 5th game was a total team effort, and I couldn’t have been happier to share the victory with my peeps in that huddle.”
Stanford had a number of impressive individual performances, highlighted by Shaw. The freshman recorded a double-double, with 54 assists and 12 digs, while adding five kills. Cook had his usual standout offensive day, with a match-high 24 kills on .302 hitting. His fellow junior outside hitter, Steven Irvin, also made big contributions on the offensive end, posting his first double-double of the season with 14 kills and 14 digs.
Stanford will hope to keep its momentum going into next week as it goes on the road for the first time this season. The Cardinal will face its two toughest opponents yet, with No. 8 USC on Friday and No. 4 Pepperdine on Saturday.