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Title in the Cards? Volleyball holds off BYU to advance to final

Stanford men’s volleyball is heading to the NCAA title match after a thrilling five-set battle against No. 2 seed BYU in Chicago on Thursday night.

Senior outside hitter Brian Cook (above) extended his collegiate career with the decisive kill in Stanford's five-set win against BYU in the national semifinal Thursday night. (MIKE KHEIR/The Stanford Daily)

Senior outside hitter Brian Cook (above) extended his collegiate career with the decisive kill in Stanford’s five-set win against BYU in the national semifinal Thursday night. (MIKE KHEIR/The Stanford Daily)

This is the fifth time that No. 3 seed Stanford (24-8) will play in the NCAA title match and the team will looking to bring home its third NCAA title.

In the last few months, the Cardinal have seemed destined for this moment, winning the 14 of their last 15 matches. But the only speed bump over that stretch was a straight-set loss in the MPSF title game to BYU last week, which made Thursday’s victory over the Cougars (21-9) all the more sweet. The Cardinal have adopted a mentality and style of play that is distinctly their own and has pushed them to the high level of play they demonstrated on Thursday, earning Stanford a spot in the finals.

The match was a hard-fought battle between two of the top teams in the country, with both offenses showing just how much each team wanted a chance to take a swing at the championship title. Coming into the match, Stanford had faced BYU three times already this season and had yet to find a way to overcome the powerful Cougars offense, led by its All-American, Taylor Sander.

But the first set on Thursday was all Stanford, as the Cardinal led most of the set, hit .679 and won 25-18. Senior Eric Mochalski was nearly perfect, hitting 9 for 10 in the set, and Stanford also did a nice job minimizing BYU blocks, typically a strength of the Cougars.

The Cardinal had to be confident after the opening set, as the team is 21-3 in the season when winning the first set. Yet the momentum shifted early in the second set, with BYU adjusting its offense and taking an early lead. With two service errors by the Cardinal, the Cougars were soon up 10-5 in the set. Despite nice blocking by Stanford, the team was unable to rally from five points down and BYU took the set 25-21.

BYU kept rolling by taking the early lead once again in the third set, forcing Stanford to take timeouts at 10-6 and 16-10. After winning the first set so forcefully, Stanford did not want to lose its confidence and momentum, especially knowing how quickly BYU can capitalize off mistakes.

Stanford went on a 6-1 run in the third set with an ace from senior Steven Irvin followed by All-American Brian Cook’s seventh kill. The set was tied at 20-20 but BYU took advantage of its service game to pull ahead and take set three 25-22. After rallying from behind and almost making a third-set come back, Stanford seemed to have more energy than BYU.

With the possibility of BYU winning the match in set four, Stanford seemed eager to gain the lead and keep it. Tied at 10-10 and again at 21-21, the match was at a critical point and the intensity ramped up on both sides of the net. Stanford went up 23-22 with an error by the Cougars but BYU came back to tie it 25-25.

BYU was two points away from advancing to the final, but a service error opened the door for Stanford to push the match to five sets. The two teams went back and forth in suspense, with the set at 26-26 and then 27-27. Two incredible serves under pressure by sophomore middle Conrad Kaminski forced the match into a fifth set, with a service ace finally winning set four 29-27 for the Cardinal.

Kaminski continued his powerful service game with another ace to open the fifth set. BYU answered with its own impressive service game, taking the lead at 9-8 before a kill by Mochalski evened it up.

Two consecutive Cardinal blocks gave Stanford an 11-9 lead that it would not relinquish, and in a storybook ending, Stanford’s true leader in Cook gave the Cardinal the decisive kill to clinch set five, winning the match.

Stanford will face Loyola (Chicago) University at 5 p.m. on Saturday with the national title on the line.

Contact Eliza Thompson at elizat ‘at’ stanford.edu.\