By George Chen
Nearly three months ago, the Stanford men’s volleyball team knocked off then-No. 1 BYU twice in back-to-back matches. The Cardinal used the pivotal sweep as a launching point for its eight-match winning streak during the midseason stretch, creating momentum that the team has carried into the postseason.
Even with the stakes raised in the semifinal round of the MPSF Tournament, last night proved to be no different for the No. 3 Cardinal (22-6, 18-5 MPSF) as it once again defeated No. 4 BYU (24-7, 17-6 MPSF) by the score of 3-1, including a 35-33 marathon fourth set to close out the victory.
Stanford has lived up to its status as the tournament’s second seed, blowing past two top-10 teams in one week to earn a spot in the finals against No. 2 UC-Irvine, the fourth seed in the tournament. The team’s latest dominant performance against a tough Cougars team suggests that the Cardinal is playing its best volleyball at the right time.
Playing in front of a crowd of 1,000 people at USC’s Galen Center, senior outside hitter Brad Lawson was outstanding as usual, finishing with 17 kills and five assists. Sophomores Brian Cook and Steve Irvin joined Lawson in double-digit kills, notching 16 and 12 kills, respectively.
“I think the biggest factor in our win was how we handled each point tonight,” said Lawson. “We were in the moment and were able to move on after bad plays, close calls and big points from BYU.”
The Cardinal edged out the Cougars 25-21 in the first set, amassing an exceptional 0.400 hitting percentage and 18 kills as a team. After BYU answered with a victory in the second set, Stanford regained the upper hand with a 25-18 win in the third set.
But it was the fourth and final set that proved to be the most exciting, with the Cardinal trying to clinch the match and the Cougars hoping to stay alive. In the set alone, there were 28 tie scores and 16 lead changes. BYU was on the brink of extending the match to a fifth set, but the resilient Stanford players foiled the Cougars’ four set points. Following a critical point coming from Irvin’s block, sophomore middle blocker Mochalski ended the marathon set and the match with an ace to secure the 35-33 win.
“That was such a fun match to be part of, and I am tremendously proud of our team. It wasn’t a clutch performance by any one person,” Mochalski said. “As a team, we fought off game point after game point and stuck together until that last serve. Everyone on our team made a clutch contribution at some point. We were confident in each other the entire time down the stretch and knew we could pull it out.”
The Cougars certainly put up a fight. BYU sophomore outside hitter Taylor Sander led the Cougars with 27 kills while senior setter Joe Kauliakamoa dished out an impressive 56 assists. But it wasn’t nearly enough to throw the Cardinal players off sync or intimidate them down the stretch.
“I’m so proud of how we grinded out each point, especially late in the fourth set,” Lawson said about the team’s clutch performance late in the game. “We relied on each other and just trusted that we’d be there for each other at crucial moments. I have to give a lot of credit to our defense and middle blockers as well. They put up great numbers and Mochalski’s serve to close out the match was huge.”
The fluid, solid play that has characterized the team’s recent matches should certainly give the Cardinal confidence as it prepares to face UC-Irvine for the MPSF Tournament title on Saturday. But beating the Anteaters will be no easy task. Shortly after Stanford defeated BYU last night, UC-Irvine followed suit by defeating No. 1 USC in five sets. The fact that the Anteaters were down two sets before storming back to win the last three makes their win all the more impressive.
Stanford will square off against UC-Irvine for the MPSF Tournament title at 7 p.m. on Saturday at USC’s Galen Center.