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Volleyball Turnaround

A good omen: the Hawaii connection.

Photo: Rob Ericson

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There are already countless references to "the Shoji brothers." Kawika and Erik, first-team All-Americans for Stanford's revitalized men's volleyball program, are going to be lumped together for years to come as well. It's all in the context of success, and neither brother seems ruffled to be sharing a billing as a family athletic sensation. But it would be a mistake to ignore their individuality.

Kawika, '10, with three seasons behind him, and Erik, '12, who has completed his freshman year, gave serious consideration to attending other colleges. It was anything but a foregone conclusion that Stanford would land one or both of them, and they could have ended up playing at different schools—just as they did growing up in Hawaii. Their father, Dave, the acclaimed women's volleyball coach at the University of Hawaii, also notes that they're markedly different types of players.

Sure, everything looks preordained now, particularly if you know that their sister, Cobey, is on the Farm as the director of operations for the women's volleyball team. Then consider that the Stanford roster includes four players who competed alongside either Kawika or Erik on club or school teams in Hawaii. It all seems to hint at a certain destiny for a rejuvenated Cardinal program that concluded the 2009 season with its most victories—21—since 1997.

The asterisk that can't be forgotten is from late April, when Stanford squandered a two-set lead over USC at Maples Pavilion and was eliminated in the first round of the postseason tournament. "It's going to leave a bitter taste in our mouths all summer and fall," says Kawika (Kah-VEE-kah).

Even so, there's an overwhelming sense of well-timed progress by the team. If Stanford improves enough to reach next year's Final Four, it will get the chance to win the national championship that it will host May 6 to May 8.

In 2006, Stanford went just 4-24, and in 2007, Kawika's first season, the team fell to a record-low 3-25. But 2008 brought a startling turnaround: 17-11. This year, the squad got an infusion of elite freshmen led by Erik and Brad Lawson, touted as the nation's top recruit after a season in which his Honolulu school beat Erik's for the state title. The upshot: A 21-11 campaign in which Erik, a libero (defensive specialist), set a national single-season record for digs with 447.

Kawika and Erik project a warm relationship that at times can get intense. "I always tell people," says Kawika, "that not only am I his big brother, but also his harshest critic and his biggest supporter." Erik, who squirms a bit when he's actually referred to as the "little brother," says of Kawika's attention, "I appreciate it—most of the time."

Their father, who has won four national championships in 34 seasons, says their styles are distinct. Kawika, a setter, is described as exceptionally vocal—"he rallies the troops"—and extremely studied and technical in his approach to the sport. Erik, according to his dad, is quiet, "but the most talented volleyball player that I've seen." As a personality, "Erik kind of goes with the flow. But he's obsessed with volleyball."

Near the end of Stanford's season, volleyball fans became obsessed with him. In a match against UC-San Diego, Erik made a once-in-a-lifetime play that turned into a video phenomenon. Sprawled on the floor after diving for a dig made by a teammate, Erik stretched out and kicked the still airborne ball with exquisite timing. In eye-poppingly lucky fashion, the ball headed with perfect direction and height toward Lawson, who jumped forward to hit it for a kill. The sequence was spotlighted on ESPN and garnered almost 200,000 views on Stanford's YouTube site over just two weeks.

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