May 8, 2010
By Jake Curtis
Special to NCAA.com
PALOT ALTO, Calif. – Stanford completed its unlikely three-year journey from a 3-25 season in 2007 to a national championship in 2010 with a dominating 3-0 victory over Penn State on Saturday in the finals of the NCAA men’s volleyball tournament at Stanford.
The Cardinal, which finished the season ranked No. 1 in the country, had been riding the “worst to first” mantra ever since then-Stanford assistant coach Al Roderigues introduced the phrase at the end of the frustrating 2007 season.
Roderigues did not get to see the Cardinal (24-6) wrap up the title. Roderigues died on March 19 after a 16-month battle with stomach cancer. The team wore the letters “AL” on their uniform shoulders the rest of the season in his memory.
“We paid tribute to Al in the locker room afterward,” Stanford coach John Kosty said. “He was with us and he helped us.”
Roderigues would have been proud of Stanford, which pounded out a 30-25, 30-20, 30-18 victory behind its quartet of talented Hawaiian players. Sophomore libero Erik Shoji had 10 digs, several of which led to critical Stanford points, and setter Kawika Shoji, the National Player of the Year and Erik’s older brother, was his usual consistent and dynamic self, collecting 47 assists and 10 digs. A third Hawaiian, Spencer McLachlin, added 12 kills.
But the star was sophomore Brad Lawson, who, like Kawika Shoji, attended ‘Iolani High School in Honolulu. Lawson had 24 kills, some of spectacular velocity, and made just one hitting error, that coming on a rules violation. He finished with an .821 hitting percentage, and also had four service aces and just one serving error.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more dominating performance from an outside hitter,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said.
Lawson said it was the best performance of his career.
“You talk about being in the zone,” Kosty said. “When he’s in the zone like that, you don’t talk to him, you don’t slap hands.”
Appropriately, a Lawson kill provided the final point of the match, as Kawika Shoji, who shared the tournament MVP award with Lawson, delivered a long-distance set from an awkward angle. Lawson crushed it to the ground and the celebration began.
“Brad was unconscious tonight,” Penn State outside hitter Will Price said. “I don’t even know how to describe how they played. They played unreal.”
Stanford players agreed it was their best performance of the season as the Cardinal seemed to improve with each match. Stanford won all six sets it played in its two NCAA tournament matches and finished the year winning its final 14 sets of the season.
The Cardinal ended up 15-1 on its home floor, and this was the first time the Cardinal hosted the national championship. The boisterous crowd of 6,635, just short of a sellout, was clearly a factor in the Cardinal’s success on Saturday.
Dressed the exotic costumes that have become customary for the Cardinal student section, the Stanford crowd provided plenty of impetus for the Cardinal, which was in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997, when it won its only previous national championship.
The Cardinal took command of the match late in the first game, which ended with a kill by senior Evan Romero. But the set belonged to Lawson. With the score tied at 18, Lawson had four kills and a block assist over the next eight points to push Stanford into a 24-20 lead. The Cardinal rode that advantage through the rest of the first game.
Penn State (24-8) seemed to wilt under the constant pressure in the critical moments of the second game. The Nittany Lions burst out to a 10-5 lead, but Stanford worked its way back into the game and took a 13-12 lead when an impressive dig by Erik Shoji led to a Lawson kill.
Penn State regained the lead at 15-13, but the Nittany Lions let things get away from them at that point. Penn State committed eight unforced errors over the rest of the set, and some were uncharacteristic of an experienced team like Penn State. The Nittany Lions were making their 25th appearance in the championship tournament.
Lawson had three more kills to put the Cardinal ahead, 28-20, and Penn State made mistakes on rather easy plays on the final two points to give the Cardinal a 30-20 win and a 2-0 lead.
The third set was anticlimactic as Stanford took command early and controlled the game. Lawson’s first hitting error of the match came with the score 23-15 in the final set. Lawson appeared to have another kill, but was called for an illegal back-row attack. That was the lone blemish for Lawson, who ended the match with his 24th kill off a long set by Kawika Shoji.
It completed the Cardinal remarkable turnaround from 3-25 in 2007 to national champion in 2010.
“It’s been a fairy tale,” Romero said.