May 4, 2010

 

By Jake Curtis
Special to NCAA.com


The two letters “AL” that Stanford players wear on their jerseys tell the story of the Cardinal’s improbable rise from the depths of college volleyball to its present status as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s volleyball tournament, which begins Thursday on the Stanford campus and will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPNU.

“What a great story that team has,” said Pete Hanson, coach of No. 4 seeded Ohio State, which will play Stanford in a semifinal at 8 p.m. PT. “Three years ago, they were the worst team in the conference.”  

By contrast, Ohio State (22-7) and No. 3 seed Penn State (23-7) have been regulars in the four-team NCAA championship. No. 2 seed Cal State Northridge (23-9), which will face Penn State in the first semifinal (6 p.m. PT) is a relative newcomer to the event, but has not risen as far as Stanford (22-6).

Three years ago, Stanford was 3-25 and had hit rock bottom.

“It was very demoralizing and frustrating,” said Stanford’s All-American setter Kawika Shoji, a freshman in 2007. “It took its toll.”

It was after that demoralizing season that long-time Stanford assistant coach Al Roderigues made the proclamation the team would embody for the next three seasons: “Worst to first.”

The team improved as talented recruits were added to maturing players, and two years ago, Stanford officials decided it was time to bid to host the 2010 NCAA tournament.

“We knew we were going to be pretty good, but we didn’t know how good,” said Stanford coach John Kosty, whose first season as the Cardinal’s head coach was that disastrous 2007 season. “But we figured if we were ever going to bring the NCAAs to northern California and if there was ever a chance we could be in it, this was going to be one of those times.”

It was a perfect convergence for Stanford, which will host the NCAA tournament for the first time.  Unfortunately, Roderigues had to watch from a hospital bed as the Cardinal made his mantra a reality, climbing to No. 1 in the American Volleyball Coaches rankings by midseason.  

His 16-month battle with stomach cancer ended on March 19, but the Cardinal has stayed atop the rankings and Roderigues continues to be honored by the team.

Players say they wear Al Roderigues’ first name on the shoulder of their jerseys to commemorate his spirit and optimism, not to mention his prescience.  And the home floor and colorful Stanford student section may help the Cardinal’s bid to make Roderigues’ prediction a reality.

“It is absolutely an advantage,” Shoji said of the home crowd.  “I don’t know any other place that has the repertoire of costumes.”

The Stanford student section is known for its wild attire. Fans dress up as bowling pins, vegetables and Pac-Man, to name a few. They helped Stanford gain the conference’s automatic berth when it beat Cal State Northridge, 3-0, in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship game on May 1.   

Northridge showed enough to earn the lone at-large berth in the four-team tournament.  

Ohio State earned its spot by beating Loyola-Illinois, 3-2, in the title match of the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, and Penn State defeated Princeton, 3-0, in the finals of the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association.

The NCAA tournament is old hat for the Nittany Lions, who earned a berth in the national semifinals for 12th consecutive year and for the 25th time overall. Penn State has a few players left from the 2008 team that won a national championship, including first-team All-American middle blocker Max Lipsitz, a senior who leads the nation with a .526 hitting percentage.

They will face a stiff challenge from Cal State Northridge, which won two of its three matches against Stanford this season. Both Stanford and Northridge play in the tough MPSF, which features the top nine teams in the most recent AVCA national rankings.   

The Matadors’ best national showing was in 1993, when they were NCAA runners-up, but they have a realistic chance for their first national title this season. Two Matador middle blockers – Kevin McKniff and Jacek Ratajczak – were named first-team All-Americans, and the 7-foot-2 Ratajczak is particularly imposing. They could be headed for a fourth match with Stanford, if both advance to Saturday’s championship.  

Ohio State is making its third straight appearance in the NCAA semifinals, but the Buckeyes have never won a national title and made it to the finals just once, in 2000. They depend on setter Steven Kehoe, the conference player of the year, and Shawn Sangrey, who ranks seventh nationally in kills per game at 4.75.

But the Buckeyes will be underdogs playing on the road against Stanford, which features three-first-team All-Americans – setter Shoji, his brother, sophomore libero Erik Shoji, and sophomore outside hitter Brad Lawson, who was named PMVF player of the year and is fourth nationally in kills per game at 4.84.

All three are from Hawaii, and Kawika Shoji notices the similarities between this Stanford team and the 1997 Cardinal, which captured Stanford’s only national title.  That team was also led by a setter (Stewart Chong) and outside hitter (Mike Lambert) from Hawaii.

Shoji is hoping that is an omen that Stanford can complete the journey from worst to first, just as Al Roderigues had predicted.