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M. Volleyball: Card clinches No. 2 seed in MPSF tournament

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On a Senior Night that featured the final regular season match of 50-year UCLA head coach Al Scates and major seeding implications for the upcoming Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) tournament, drama was the expectation on Saturday. Instead, the only thing the season-high 1,730 fans attending the Stanford men’s volleyball match received was an emphatic statement as plain as the online play-by-play account: the home team came to play.

The Stanford men's volleyball team locked up the No. 2 seed in the upcoming MPSF tournament with two home wins over the weekend. (ROGER CHEN/The Stanford Daily)

The No. 5 Stanford men’s volleyball team (20-6, 17-5 MPSF) dominated the third-ranked UCLA Bruins (22-7, 16-6) in straight sets, 25-18, 25-21, 25-18, to lay claim to the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament and, in the process, complete the team’s best conference record since the national championship season of 1997.

“We felt extremely prepared going into UCLA,” said sophomore middle blocker Eric Mochalski. “We had a great game plan and were confident in our preparation.”

Sophomore Brian Cook had 12 kills, eight blocks and five digs, while senior Brad Lawson and sophomore Steven Irvin each added 11 kills for the Cardinal, which hit .397 as a team and never trailed later than 9-10 in any set. Excellent serving and passing helped Stanford avenge its worst loss of the season, when it was swept for the first and only time this year at the hands of the Bruins in Westwood back in January.

“The difference between this time and last time was our serving and passing games,” Cook said. “When we are on, we get into a rhythm that can be hard to stop. This time, we got the advantage early and were able to control their middles, who are their primary (offensive) weapons.”

“All credit is due to the passers, because they played a great match,” he added.

Senior setter Evan Barry dished out 40 assists, improving his national-best 12.02 assists-per-set average, while fellow senior Erik Shoji added 11 digs. It was the fourth-consecutive match with double-digit digs for the reigning MPSF Player of the Week.

Stanford seized control of the match early behind a brilliant offensive barrage that saw the Cardinal hit .591 in the first set, featuring six kills by Lawson.

Although UCLA trailed for most of the second set, Stanford’s lead was only 20-19 until Cook registered three kills in a span of four points to give Stanford some breathing room and set the stage for Irvin, who tallied consecutive kills to close out the set at 25-21.

Stanford’s magnificent offense turned into brilliant defense in the third, when the Cardinal rose up for eight blocks, four of them by senior Gus Ellis, en route to holding the UCLA attack to a negative hitting percentage for the set. Fittingly enough, the match would end on a block as Mochalski and Cook combined to stop UCLA’s Weston Dunlap to seal the victory.

“We felt like we were a step ahead of them and knew what they were going to do,” said Mochalski, who assisted on five of Stanford’s 14 blocks in the match.

As great as the Stanford performance was on Saturday, it wouldn’t have come as a surprise to those who witnessed the team’s match Friday against UC-Santa Barbara. The Cardinal dominated the Gauchos (7-19, 5-17) from start to finish, registering a 25-19, 25-14, 25-20 victory to set up the clash with UCLA.

Stanford’s hitters were again beneficiaries of great passing, as Barry tallied 45 assists in the three sets in guiding the team to a .394 hitting percentage while Shoji added 14 digs. That made life easy for Lawson and Irvin, who combined for 30 kills on just 46 attempts.

The second set was particularly impressive, as the team’s balanced attack hit .538 and saw kills from six different Stanford players, including redshirt senior Charley Henrikson in what turned out to be the final regular season match of his career.

Stanford has now registered five straight wins, the second-longest streak in the conference heading into next week’s MPSF tournament. The team is peaking at the right time and must continue to play if it hopes to snare the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“We are playing great volleyball at the right time,” Mochalski said. “We are looking to be equally prepared physically and mentally for Pepperdine and hopefully have another great performance.”

Stanford will host the seventh-seeded Waves, a team they defeated twice this season, on Saturday at 7 p.m. The winner advances to play the winner of the BYU-Long Beach match, which Stanford would host if it wins on Saturday.

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