National Championship Preview: One For The Ages
May 7, 2010
2010 Men's Volleyball National Championship
Stanford vs. Penn State Maples Pavilion, Stanford, Calif.
7 p.m. ET ESPN2 ESPN3.com
2010 MEN'S VOLLEYBALL LIVE BRACKET
By Jake Curtis
Special to NCAA.com
PALO ALTO, Calif. - The NCAA men's volleyball championship game on Saturday between Stanford and Penn State offers a classic matchup on several levels.
It's East versus West.
It's perennial power Penn State against a Stanford team that has risen from the ashes.
It's Stanford playing at home in front of its loud and costumed student section against Penn State's road warriors.
Each team has a player known for his powerful kills and serving, and the two best liberos in college volleyball will be on stage for the 4 p.m. PST match, which will be televised by ESPN2 and ESPN360.
All of that adds up to an intriguing matchup between No. 1-ranked Stanford (23-6) and No. 12 Penn State (24-7), two schools that have not played each other in four years.
Penn State is the only school east of the Rocky Mountains that has won an NCAA men's volleyball title, and all the Nittany Lions' starters come the East Coast or Puerto Rico. On the other side, four of Stanford's starters are from Hawaii and another hails from California.
But the regional allegiances seem to be more for fans than the players.
"I think it's a non-issue," said Stanford setter Kawika Shoji, the national player of the year. "I don't look at it as a West Coast-East Coast rivalry."
The two teams also come from different places historically. Penn State is participating in the NCAA tournament for the 12th consecutive year and 25th time overall, having dominated volleyball in the East for decades and owning two national championships.
Stanford is in the NCAAs for the first time since 1997, when it won its only national title. And just three years ago the Cardinal went 3-25.
"For them to go through the things they did and having accomplished what they have, my hat's off to them," said Penn State coach Mark Pavlik.
Penn State showed the benefits of its postseason experience when it beat Cal State Northridge 3-0 in Thursday's semifinals after having lost to the Matadors 3-0 during the regular season.
"Experience level is a big issue," Shoji said. "And I guess they have two guys who played on their national championship team (in 2008), so they have one up on us in that respect. But playing at home is one up for us."
The Cardinal is 14-1 at Maples Pavilion playing in front of its boisterous students, who dress up in assorted unusual costumes for the matches. Students dressed as Darth Vader, bowling pins, vegetables, Pac-Man and a variety of animals make Stanford's crowd one of the most colorful in college sports.
"Whenever we're struggling for a play or two, you see the guy in the cat suit waving us on, we get that energy back, we refocus," said Stanford opposite Evan Romero. "I looked over Thursday (during the 3-0 semifinal victory over Ohio State) and saw Darth Vader choking a storm trooper. They're preparing for this next match; they have different skits planned."
Penn State setter Edgardo Goas allowed that Penn State crowds "are a little more passive," but the Nittany Lions have seen it all. They traveled to Hawaii early in the season, and made two separate trips to California to toughen themselves against the best competition in the country.
"And the crowd we played in front of at Loyola (Ill.) was awfully rowdy," Penn State's All-American middle blocker Max Lipsitz said.
That still may not match the level of competition Stanford has faced this season, playing in the Pacific Mountain Volleyball Federation, which featured the top nine ranked teams in the latest American Volleyball Coach Association poll.
"Their league may not be as strong, and their strength of schedule not as great as ours," Stanford coach John Kosty said.
Ultimately the players will decide things, and each team has its share of stars.
It starts with Stanford's standout frontline players Brad Lawson and Romero and Penn State's equally adept hitters Lipsitz and Will Price.
Penn State's Goas (6-foot-5) and Stanford's Shoji (6-foot-3) are among the nation's best setters, as evidenced by the fact that they rank second and third in the nation, respectively, in assists per game.
"Edgardo is little bigger than I am and probably more athletic," Shoji said. "I may be a little more dynamic."
And each team is blessed with a standout libero - Penn State junior Dennis Del Valle, a second-team All-American, and Stanford sophomore Erik Shoji, Kawika's brother and a first-team All-American. They rank third and fourth, respectively, in the nation in digs per game, and both were spectacular in the semifinals. Erik Shoji had 12 digs in three games on Thursday, and Del Valle had 17 in the Nittany Lions' sweep of Northridge.