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M. Volleyball: Defending the title

Junior outside hitter Brad Lawson, last season's MPSF player of the year, and the Stanford men's volleyball team open the 2011 season with hopes of back-to-back national titles. (Stanford Daily File Photo)

Just three years removed from a painful 3-25 season, the 2010 Stanford men’s volleyball team used the slogan “Worst to First” as it stormed to the program’s second NCAA Division I title. The mantra, coined by revered assistant coach Al Roderigues, who passed away from cancer two months before the championship match, helped bring a surge of fan support and enthusiasm to Maples Pavilion during the run. Eight months later, tonight is the beginning of what players and coaches have deemed the “First to First” season with its first match against UC-Santa Cruz.

The road to another national championship will not be easy for this Cardinal team. To begin with, Stanford will have to replace last season’s American Volleyball Coaches’ Association (AVCA) national player of the year and two-time AVCA first team All-American setter Kawika Shoji. Junior Evan Barry looks likely to be head coach John Kosty’s choice to step into Shoji’s big shoes.

Barry spent the summer at the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) Junior World Beach Volleyball Championships in Turkey and has been playing well in open-gym sessions, but he will need to create chemistry with a front line that will also be without AVCA second team All-American opposite hitter Evan Romero and Stanford’s career record holder in blocks, middle blocker Garrett Werner; both graduated last spring.

Despite losing three starters, the Cardinal has plenty of reason to be optimistic about its chances this year. Barry will be joined on the court by Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) player of the year and AVCA first team All-American outside hitter Brad Lawson, only a junior. Two-time AVCA first team All-American libero Erik Shoji, Kawika’s younger brother, will provide leadership and consistency to the defense, and the team’s other returning starters–senior outside hitter Spencer McLachlin and junior middle blocker Gus Ellis–make this Stanford team another strong candidate for postseason success.

The MPSF coaches agree, picking Stanford to finish third in the tough conference behind UC-Irvine and USC. Last year, the Cardinal was picked to finish fourth before going 16-6 in league play. It lost only one set total in the MPSF and NCAA Tournaments, sweeping both Ohio State and Penn State at a raucous Maples Pavilion last May.

Kosty, too, seems optimistic that this year’s core returners will give the team enough veteran leadership to balance out what looks to be a very promising incoming class, headlined by two opposite hitters, Steven Irving and Daniel Tublin. The class also includes Eric Mochalski, a top outside hitter who also plays opposite, and a middle blocker, Denny Falls, who Kosty sums up simply as “dynamic.”

Many have tabbed Stanford’s freshmen as the top recruiting class in the nation. Five of the seven are 6-foot-4 or taller (the exceptions being a pair of 5-foot-9 liberos, Scott Sakaida and Grant Delgado), and two played on the U.S. Junior National Team.

After visiting the White House and meeting with President Obama over the summer, the team spent the winter break preparing for what promises to be a tough early schedule. After opening against Santa Cruz, Stanford plays host to Brigham Young for a doubleheader in the MPSF opener. The Cardinal then hits the road, playing at Hawaii before a weekend trip to Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State.

A midseason trip to Lewis and Loyola of Chicago breaks up the conference schedule, but marks the only time Stanford will leave the West Coast.

Tonight’s match against UC-Santa Cruz will be at 7 p.m. at Burnham Pavilion.

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