May 8, 2010

By Jake Curtis
Special to

PALO ALTO, Calif. - Stanford senior setter Kawika Shoji paused a long time when asked to reflect on the Cardinal's 3-25 season in 2007 and whether he could have imaged then that his team would win a national title three years later.

"I had hope," he said, his voice cracking. "I dreamed. I wouldn't say I expected it. I knew hard work could get us far. I guess I wasn't thinking that far ahead. Short-term goals are what got us through."

The Cardinal's only wins that year were against Quincy (Plymouth, Mass.) and UC San Diego, which Stanford beat twice, and the Cardinal finished the season on a six-game losing streak.

Only a handful of fans attended Stanford games then. On Saturday when Stanford beat Penn State, 3-0, to win the NCAA men's volleyball national championship, Maples Pavilion was filled to near capacity with 6,635 people, easily the most to witness a Cardinal men's volleyball game.

"That's about 6,600 more than we had our freshman year," said senior opposite Evan Romero, who was the team kills leader in 2007.

He and Shoji were the only two Stanford starters on Saturday who also were starters on the 2007 team. And while Shoji is a measured student of the game, Romero is a highly emotional player, who learned to control his passion as he matured. Winning a national title was not on his mind in 2007.

"I don't know what I was thinking then," he said." But I remember the coaches instilled in us that it's a process."

The 2007 season was John Kosty's first as Stanford's head coach, and obviously things did not get off to a flying start. But he had been a Stanford assistant in 1997, when Stanford won its first NCAA title, so he knew what it took to be an elite team.

With Stanford's victory, a California college has now won the NCAA men's volleyball title 35 times in the past 41 years.

STANFORD STREAK: With its victory in the men's volleyball finals, Stanford assured itself of winning at least one NCAA championship for the 34th consecutive year. The streak seemed to be in jeopardy as the school year came down to the final few sports, with the Cardinal not favored to win any of the remaining NCAA championships.

Stanford had finished second in women's soccer, women's basketball and men's gymnastics.

HAWAII CONNECTION: No men's volleyball team is more dominated by Hawaiian players more than Stanford - including the University of Hawaii. Hawaii has an elite-level program, but only four of its players are from Hawaii, and none of them is a regular starter. Stanford has seven Hawaiians on its roster, and four of them are starters.

Those four Hawaiians, all of whom are from Honolulu, played a major role in the Cardinal's national championship victory. Brad Lawson and Kawika Shoji went to the same high school, the Iolani School, and they ended up sharing the tournament MVP award.

And Lawson said he had a career night, and only one other match in his history compared.

"Maybe in my (high school) state championship game, when I was in a zone," he said, "but, no, this was the national championship."

The longer the game went the more Stanford went to Lawson, who finished with 24 kills and an .821 hitting percentage.

"We kept going to the well, and it never dried up," Kawika Shoji said.

Lost in the shuffle was the play of Kawika's young bother, sophomore libero Erik Shoji, who had several remarkable digs. Romero called some of his digs "absurd." Two of the biggest came in the third set, one leading to a point that gave Stanford a 13-12 lead and the other contributing to a point that gave the Cardinal an 18-16 lead and seemed to break Penn State's back.

PENN STATE TO HOST 2011: Stanford had a distinct advantage by playing at home, where it benefited from the vocal support of its fans. Penn State hopes it will have the same advantage next year, when it hosts the national championships.

"Playing a team like that on their home court in that atmosphere is a memory I will take with me the rest of my life," Penn State opposite Will Price said. "We had fun."

Penn State All-America middle hitter Max Lipsitz said he could not hear the Nittany Lions' fans over the din of Cardinal fans.

"We are going to have that opportunity next year," Lipsitz said.