STANFORD, Calif. — In the aftermath of Stanford’s incredible comeback victory Saturday, a natural question for anyone who witnessed it was this: How did that happen?
Fans of both teams were left shaking their heads after Stanford overcame six match points to rally past Pacific 25-23, 17-25, 25-27, 25-17, 19-17 in a wild Mountain Pacific Sports Federation opener at Burnham Pavilion.
Stanford (4-0, 1-0) trailed 14-11, 15-14, 16-15 and 17-16 in the fifth set. So how exactly did Stanford rally from the dead?
The simple answer: James Shaw and Eric Mochalski.
On the point that defined the match and sparked the Cardinal to a three-point closing run, freshman setter Shaw lifted every inch of his 6-foot-7 frame to reach a slightly wayward pass high above the net. With one hand and in one fluid motion, Shaw set a ball that hung tantalizingly for Mochalski to blast through and pound it almost directly into the ground.
It was the best of force and motion in a single act, and it may have destroyed Pacific. It tied the set at 17-17, and ended Pacific’s fruitless series of match-point opportunities. The match, though still tied, seemed decided.
Mochalski followed with a go-ahead tip and Daniel Tublin finished off the Tigers by smacking an attack through the Tigers’ block and on to the floor. Match over, and a victory for the team that seemed destined to lose.
“We battled through diversity,” Stanford head coach John Kosty said. “We battled through some bad plays. We learned that we can come back.”
Lessons were learned and confidence was gained. But they could have been painful lessons. Simply put, Stanford played badly for large chunks of the match, especially in Game 2. The passing was stiff and the ideas had all but disappeared.
However, No. 15 Pacific (1-1, 0-1), seeking to end its nine-match losing streak to its Northern California rival, was in an opposite state. Pacific had energy and plenty of it. Big hitter Taylor Hughes had 19 kills and the Tigers looked like a party ready to happen. Even coming out of a timeout when leading 14-12 in the fifth set, the smiles were at the ready. The Tigers had trouble keeping them in.
But they didn’t realize the rally already had begun.
Denny Falls, a fifth-set substitute at middle blocker, delivered an unobstructed kill to make it 14-12. An illegal backrow attack gave Stanford another point and Brian Cook drew Stanford even at 14-14 with one of his match-high 24 kills.
A tip by Tublin saved another match point and the final clutch kill by Cook tied the score on two other match points. But until Mochalski’s ultimate attack, there continued to be an element of doubt. But that changed when the crater appeared in the Burnham floor.
“Pacific did some good things with their serve,” Kosty said. “You always have to go back to basics. That’s something that got away from us for a little bit. We focused on good technique and that paid off at the end.”
Shaw had 54 kills and 12 digs, and kept Pacific off balance with five kills, including a winning two-handed joust at the net against the Tigers’ 6-9 Tommy Carmody early in the first set. For a team that relies so much on a freshman, the ebb and flow in play is understandable, Kosty said.
“He’s going through a big learning curve right now,” Kosty said. “He’s learning about the MPSF and learning about himself as he plays. He’s continually trying to get better and his successes are going to come.”
Steven Irvin had 14 kills and 14 digs for the Cardinal, which hit a season-low .282 as a team, and Cook hit a strong .304.
Even so, there is no difference between elegant victories and hard-earned ones in the standings, especially in the rugged and competitive MPSF. It’s just that this one seemed just a little bit sweeter than normal.
The question, “How did this happen?” is not a simple one. But Stanford needs only to relish in the fact that it had an answer.