Playing as the No. 1 ranked team in the country for the first time since its national championship season in 2010, the Stanford men’s volleyball team split its matches over the weekend, defeating No. 10 Pepperdine 25-21, 24-26, 25-19, 25-18 before being outlasted by No. 6 USC 21-25, 25-18, 25-27, 25-16, 15-13. As a result of the loss to USC, Stanford failed to move into first place in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and will likely relinquish its newly minted status as the top team in the country.
“[Head coach John] Kosty told us after we earned the No. 1 ranking that we are going to have to be a lot better come playoff time than we are now in order to have a successful playoffs. I think this weekend showed that,” sophomore outside hitter Brian Cook said. “Also, this weekend showed just how competitive our league is and how we can’t take any games off.”
The matches were the first at home for the Cardinal (12-3, 9-2 MPSF) since Jan. 14, opening a stretch that will see Stanford play nine of its final 11 matches of the season at home.
Fittingly, the first home match in six weeks for Stanford featured some fireworks, as both the Cardinal and Pepperdine (8-6, 6-5) came out swinging in the first set. The set saw just three combined errors, with Stanford’s .692 hitting percentage trumping Pepperdine’s .524 mark. Sophomore Steven Irvin, who finished the match as one of four Cardinal players with double-digit kills, was the hot hand, tallying six kills in the first set alone.
Pepperdine was able to win a tight second set 26-24, on the strength of a much-improved defensive effort. After the Stanford attack dominated the first set, the Cardinal was held to a .217 hitting-percentage in the second. Tied at 24, the Pepperdine defense proved crucial in the deciding points, using consecutive blocks on Irvin by senior Matt Pollock and freshman Matt West to even the match at 1-1.
Taking a page from Pepperdine’s book, the Cardinal seized control of the match defensively behind the strength of seniors Gus Ellis and Erik Shoji. Ellis finished with nine blocks in the match, including two solo efforts, while Shoji’s six digs proved crucial in stifling the Pepperdine attack.
Stanford closed out each of the final two sets in style, finishing off the Waves on kills by sophomore Eric Mochalski and seldom-used redshirt freshman Daniel Tublin. For the match, senior Brad Lawson led all hitters with 14 kills. Cook added 13, while Irvin and Mochalski each contributed 10. Senior setter Evan Barry finished with 47 assists.
Saturday’s match against No. 6 USC (9-4, 7-4) proved to be a thriller—and a heartbreaker—for the Cardinal and its fans. A back-and-forth affair that saw the Cardinal go up two games to one, and later 12-11 in the fifth set, was all for naught, as the Trojans were able to pull off the victory thanks to a sparkling performance from senior All-American Tony Ciarelli. Ciarelli finished with 28 kills, 11 digs and the kill on the final point to dash Stanford’s hopes of prolonging the match and, most importantly, seizing control of the MPSF standings. The performance by Ciarelli offset yet another impressive outing by Lawson, who finished with 24 kills.
Stanford found success in the first set, turning an 11-11 score into a 19-13 lead thanks to some sloppy play by USC and a pesky defense that forced four attack errors during the 8-2 run. Lawson proved crucial down the stretch, registering three kills to help hold off the Trojans.
Stanford again jumped out to a lead in the second set, taking a 12-9 advantage thanks in large part to a series of attack errors by the Trojans. USC was able to kick it into gear however, winning five straight points to take a 14-12 lead, which they would not relinquish for the rest of the set. USC’s defense remained strong throughout the set, as they held Stanford to a lowly .115 hitting percentage.
Stanford regained its offensive footing in the third thanks to a monstrous 11-kill performance by Lawson, including the final point of the set to give Stanford a 2-1 advantage.
The Cardinal was not able to maintain this success in the fourth, as it was held to a .040 hitting percentage for the set, which fittingly ended with a USC block of Mochalski.
Leading 12-11 in the fifth, Stanford was unable to close out USC. A pair of crucial errors by Lawson and Irvin set up what seemed to be an inevitable conclusion for USC: a match-clinching kill by Ciarelli.
Cook said that even though the close loss was a crushing result to deal with, it was a good reminder that the team still can get better, even with a No. 1 ranking next to its name.
“There are always skills we can get better at individually, and the focus this week in practice is to be as competitive as we can to simulate and get better at those close-game situations,” he said. “Ultimately, though, we know we can win close games because we have done it in the past, and that’s what’s important.”
The team is back in action on Friday against UC-San Diego at 7 p.m in Maples Pavilion.