At Stanford, winning national championships seems like a regular thing. The last full calendar year that Stanford went without winning a national title was in 1979. Often, Stanford students likely forget the incredible stories that each of these great victories represent. The Stanford men’s volleyball team recently defeated Penn State 3-0 in the NCAA tournament finals right here on campus. In fact, Stanford blew through their previous three opponents easily, winning 3-0 in dominating fashion against each. Their amazing run, however, seemed all but completely unrealizable just a few years ago.
In 2007, during the current seniors’ first season at Stanford, the team had a 3-25 overall record and was dead last in the conference. The season was hard but assistant coach Al Roderigues did his best to motivate the team. “During one of the demoralizing road trips,” said senior captain and setter Kawika Shoji, “our late Coach Al told the then freshman class ‘to be patient and that we would go from worst to first.'” Unfortunately, Roderigues did not have a chance to see this dream fulfilled as he died on March 19, only days after Stanford had attained the number 1 national team ranking. “This mantra, along with Al’s passing, motivated us for the last four years,” said Shoji.
Stanford came into the game with much to play for. The team was definitely emotional in light of Al’s death. They wore “AL” patches on their jerseys proudly. With a home crowd of 6635, the team might have been nervous because the hopes and expectations were all for victory. Rather than recoiling in face of the pressure, the team played with poise all throughout the match.
Penn State came into the first game with some fire. They have had some recent success winning championships in men’s volleyball and their coach, Mark Pavlik, knows what it takes to win. The game was tense and very back and forth. But at 19-19, Stanford started to pull away. Penn State made some unforced errors and left sophomore outside hitter Brad Lawson unchecked. He scored 5 kills in Stanford’s last 11 points of the first set, adding to a total of 8 for the set. Thanks to Lawson’s effort, Stanford pulled out the first set with a 30-25 win.
To start out the second set, Stanford played lethargically. They had lost some of the momentum from their first win and were not connecting on most of their hits. Early into the game, the Cardinal was already digging itself a hole at 6-11. However, after head coach John Kosty wisely called a timeout, the team became refocused. Stanford quickly responded to Penn State by going on a 6-1 run to pull even. Penn State and Stanford battled back and forth for a few points but then Stanford started to string together a run of their own. The Nittany Lion’s offense started to fall apart in the second half of the set. Similar to the first set, just as the Penn State offense cooled, Stanford’s heated up. Led once again by Lawson, the Cardinal attack kicked into gear and could not be stopped. After initially being down, Stanford won the set 30-20.
In the third set, the Cardinal would not be denied. They started out the set strong and never let Penn State get ahead of them. Senior opposite Evan Romero and junior outside hitter Spencer McLachlin joined Lawson in a virtually unstoppable attack. As a team, the Cardinal hit .594 with 21 kills and only 2 errors. Penn State was not able to keep up and seemed somewhat resigned by the halfway point in the set. Winning easily 30-18 in the final set, the national championship run was complete.
The team’s big players stepped up in this final. Lawson played unbelievably well. He had 24 kills and hitting percentage of .821 for the match with only one error. To put this in context, Lawson had a .387 hitting percentage and averaged about 15 kills per game for the season and was thought to be having a good year. Penn State had no answer for Lawson. Whenever he hit the ball, it nearly always hit the floor. Sophomore libero Erik Shoji, little brother to Kawika, also played exceptionally well. He had 10 digs for the match and was a big reason why the Penn State hitting percentage was only at .222. Another big part of the win was setter Kawika Shoji. He had 10 digs and ran the offense well, making great plays to keep the Nittany Lions off balance.
The team played their best volleyball at the end of the season and it shows as they easily defeated tough opponents in the NCAA tournament. Kawika Shoji and Lawson together shared most valuable player honors for the tournament. “It was very special to be able to share the title and the experience with our friends and families at Stanford,” said the senior Shoji. “It was a fairy tale ending.”