By James Hemker
Proving its ranking, No. 1 Hawaii blew past Stanford over the weekend, handing the 11th-ranked Cardinal two of their worst losses of the season. The 25-15, 25-18, 25-22 and 25-23, 25-13, 25-20 losses marked the first time since 2012 that Hawaii swept Stanford in Maples.
Outclassed by the Rainbow Warriors (14-0, 0-0 Big West) in all facets of the game on Friday night, Stanford (5-7, 1-2 MPSF) regrouped Saturday with a stronger scouting report, which allowed the Cardinal to play tough defense. However, Stanford’s point-scoring offense was unable to keep pace either night, spelling six consecutive losing sets.
Backed by tough serving and strong first-ball attacks, Hawaii pushed the pace of play. The ‘Bows consistently jumped out to early leads, forcing Stanford to play catch-up. Whenever the Cardinal got close to knotting the score, Hawaii would rattle off another three- or four-point run.
“It’s a game of runs,” said junior middle Kyler Presho. “They found a way to make some good runs at the end of sets, we just didn’t have a chance to counter them.”
On Friday night, the Cardinal offense was held to its second-worst outing of the season, hitting .179. The Rainbow Warriors came to the Farm with the biggest front row Stanford had seen this season, and the Cardinal hitters struggled to adapt. Led by 6’10” All-American middle Patrick Gasman, the ‘Bows blocked eight attacks, and the pressure created another seven unforced Stanford errors.
Junior opposite Jaylen Jasper was the only Cardinal with more than six kills, however his 10 terminations came at the cost of seven errors.
“Trying to hit against a much bigger block than we’ve seen was an issue,” Jasper said. “In practice our best, biggest blockers are on my team, so I’ve never had to hit against — or around — blocks of that size.”
Further compounding the offensive woes was yet another roster change. Freshman setter Nathan Lietzke assumed the role for the first time. Redshirt freshman Justin Lui, who had taken over setting duties the past four games, moved back to his native libero position.
The combination of a freshman setter and his first career start caused communication errors and mistimed sets. Despite the miscues, Lietzke appeared a possible successor to All-MPSF senior Paul Bischoff, who has been sidelined by injury since mid-January. The 6’6” freshman paced the team in digs (six) and caught Hawaii unaware with two intelligent dumps in the third set.
“I wouldn’t put [the offensive struggles] on Lietzke,” Jasper said. “There is a big responsibility as a hitter to be able to make adjustments. A lot of it is on us knowing when to take smart swings.”
Stanford’s defense did not fare much better, as the Rainbow Warriors shelled Maples at a .458 rate. Up against some of the smartest hitters in the country, the Cardinal block was ineffective, recording just five stuffs.
The rematch occurred less than 24 hours later, this time in Burnham Pavilion. The small arena was packed to capacity — mostly by Hawaii fans — as hundreds of fans waited in line outside. The atmosphere was that of an away game for the Cardinal, as “Let’s go ‘Bows!” reverberated inside the building.
Despite the hostile atmosphere, Stanford played Hawaii much closer. An emphasis on blocking in the scout meeting before the game allowed the Cardinal defense to slow down some of Hawaii’s biggest hitters. Only two of the Rainbow Warriors’ main attackers hit over .220. As a whole they hit .247, well below their .391 season average.
“We talked a lot about how we wanted to block,” said senior middle Stephen Moye. “[Head coach] Kosty went through the film showing us exactly where he wanted us to be, and I think that showed.”
Lui returned to the setter role and junior outside Leo Henken took over at libero. The change had been prescribed earlier in the week, regardless of Lietzke’s performance on Friday night. Though Hawaii served aggressively, racking up seven aces, the Cardinal were able to pass well.
Consequently, the middles were heavily involved in the offense. Both Moye and Presho hit over .500 as they totaled seven and four kills, respectively. The issue was that they were the only attackers to hit better than .030. Stanford would end the night hitting at a .099 clip, its worst percentage in almost two years.
Hawaii’s pin blockers were excellent at shutting down the Cardinal attack, and the ‘Bows had mobile middles that could quickly close to either side of the court. When going to the outside, the Stanford offense often faced a double or triple block.
Ultimately, the weekend was an excellent learning opportunity for the Cardinal. Now that the players have seen the top team in the country twice, there is a clear goal for where Stanford’s level of play should be.
Stanford will return to MPSF action to face USC and Concordia this weekend.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.