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M. Volleyball: Setting up

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Men’s volleyball begins MPSF Tournament Saturday vs. UCI

Junior outside hitter Spencer McLachlin and the Stanford men's volleyball team begin postseason play Saturday against UC-Irvine. The No. 1 Cardinal has home-court advantage throughout the postseason. (JONATHAN POTO/The Stanford Daily)

The Stanford men’s volleyball team looks to continue its regular-season success as it hosts No. 8 seed UC-Irvine (15-14, 10-12 MPSF) in the first round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Tournament on Saturday night.

The Cardinal, who will enjoy home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, enters postseason play as the No. 1 seed in the tournament and the No. 1 team in the country after going 19-6 overall this season with a 16-6 conference record.

“The No. 1 seed in the MPSF Tournament is huge,” said senior Ed Howell. “It means that we have the potential to host every postseason game at Stanford, where we have the best fans in the nation. Momentum is a key component to volleyball, and having a home crowd to help carry our momentum when we are playing well, or find our stride when we are struggling, is key.”

As if that wasn’t enough, several Cardinal players and head coach John Kosty received conference awards for their accomplishments yesterday. In a flood of honors, Kosty was named the MPSF Coach of the Year, sophomore outside hitter Brad Lawson was named MPSF Player of the Year and senior Kawika Shoji was named to the All-MPSF First Team for the second year in a row. Adding to the haul were sophomore libero Erik Shoji and senior opposite Evan Romero, who garnered second-team all-conference honors.

These awards are an incredible tribute to the skill and success of the Cardinal this year. Lawson, who leads the Cardinal in kills per set with 4.78, couples with Romero to anchor Stanford’s top-ranked offense, a key aspect of this season’s team. In addition, Kosty has achieved an incredible feat as head coach, taking the Cardinal from last place in the MPSF in his first year to first in 2010, merely three years later.

While these stats are certainly impressive, it will mean little if the Cardinal can’t perform against the Anteaters on Saturday, an important step on the road to the team’s ultimate goal of a national championship.

That road is currently blocked by a major obstacle in the form of the Anteaters, last year’s national champions, who should not be underestimated simply because of their eighth seed. In fact, the Anteaters are actually ranked No. 7 nationally, tied with UCLA, and the depth of the MPSF is such that the top eight teams in the national rankings are all in the MPSF playoffs.

Irvine is also a familiar foe for the Cardinal, who toughed out a grueling five-set win at Irvine in the final match of the season, a win that secured the No. 1 seed for Stanford. In that match, Irvine was led by its two all-conference selections, first team opposite Carson Clark and second team outside hitter Jordan DuFault. Both players are averaging over four kills per set and will put pressure on the Cardinal to play at its highest level.

In order to overcome the Anteaters and advance, the Cardinal will likely draw on the momentum that comes from going 14-2 in its last 16 matches of the season coupled with the advantage of playing at home in front of enthusiastic and supportive Cardinal fans.

Stanford does hold the historical edge over the Anteaters, going 2-0 against them this year and leading them 26-12 in the overall series. Furthermore, if the Cardinal wins against Irvine, it will remain at home for the remainder of the playoffs, playing in Maples Pavilion, where Stanford is 10-1 this season.

Winning the tournament isn’t the only route to NCAA postseason play for the Cardinal, though. The NCAA Tournament consists of four teams, three from the three major conferences, receiving automatic bids by winning their conference tournament, and one selected as an at-large bid. If Stanford does not win the MPSF Tournament, there is a very good chance that the Cardinal, the No. 1 team in the nation, will receive the at-large bid.

Regardless of how it happens, if Stanford does make the NCAA Tournament, it will be fortunate to be able to play in Maples Pavilion again, as the arena is the site of the tournament. Therefore, as long as the Cardinal continues winning and stays in the hunt for the national title, it will continue to play in front of a friendly, hometown crowd.

For now though, the Cardinal needs to remain focused on the task at hand, beating UC-Irvine and advancing further in the MPSF Tournament.

The match starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Maples Pavilion.