For volleyball, an epic turnaround.
Photo: Marc Abrams/Stanford Athletics
There's probably no such thing as a ho-hum, run-of-the-mill national championship. But some title seasons pack an extra wallop, as if the teams followed scripts instead of playbooks.
This year, it felt like that around the men's volleyball team, which captured the NCAA championship on home court at Maples Pavilion in early May, crushing Penn State in straight sets. There was jubilation; there was vindication; there was closure—all part of a 24-6 campaign that was capped off by sweeps of the last four opponents.
In 2007, when the impact of a new recruiting era was yet to be felt, Stanford endured its worst-ever season, going 3-25 under first-year head coach John Kosty. In 2008, there was rejuvenation: 17-11. And in 2009, the record climbed to 21-11, even though it was sealed by a traumatically instructional collapse against USC in the first round of the conference playoffs.
At the low ebb in '07, volunteer coach Al Roderigues drove an unwaveringly visionary message into the squad's consciousness: "Worst to first" was the team's destiny. As lousy as the losses felt, they also would be a springboard to an epic resurgence. Persist now, prevail later.
After a protracted battle with stomach cancer, Roderigues, 67, died in March, and the lingering sadness on the Farm was heightened by the notion that he hadn't survived to see the culmination of the turnaround. But that's the wrong perspective, suggests Kosty, noting that Stanford rose to first in the national rankings before Roderigues succumbed. When members of the team visited him shortly before his death, they presented him with a framed pictorial illustrating their four-year ascent. "A lot has been made of the worst-to-first theme," says Kosty. "Really, it was about being the best you can be."
And at the point any good script would celebrate that theme—during the everything-on-the-line showdown with Penn State—sophomore Brad Lawson stepped into the spotlight as if sent by central casting. The outside hitter smashed 24 kills on 28 swings, finishing with a prodigious hitting percentage of .821 that almost made the word "dominating" sound insufficient. "He played the best match of his life in the most important match of his life," Kosty says.
For Lawson, there was a sense of attainment that paralleled the team's improvement. Undermined in the past by his inability to shake off mistakes, he found the mental groove "to silence my inner critic." The result was a physical groove that transfixed the crowd. Well afterwards, fans kept gushing over him. "I still have people coming up to me that I don't know, saying, 'You played amazingly.'"
Lawson and senior setter Kawika Shoji, high school teammates in Hawaii, shared the tournament's most outstanding player designation. Shoji, one of the five team members who experienced that 3-25 freshman season, already had won the national player of the year award. Shoji, his brother Erik, a sophomore libero, and Lawson had been named first-team All-Americans; opposite hitter Evan Romero, another of the 3-25 freshmen, made the second team. And in late May, Kosty was honored as national coach of the year.
Among the turning points Kosty points to was the 2009 playoff failure against USC. As part of his efforts to create a hardier team chemistry, he brought on assistant coach Chris McLachlin, '68, MA '70, noted for his sports psychology skills. McLachlin, a Stanford player-coach in the 1960s club-sport era, spent decades as a high school coach in Hawaii (and coached Barack Obama in basketball). His son Spencer will be one of next season's seniors.
As McLachlin looks back, he thinks the season's script was so intense that there's room for elaboration, so he's started work on a book. That big a story, he thinks, deserves just as big a telling.
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Data is from the past two weeks.