Players and students rushed the court as the No. 1 seed Stanford U. men’s volleyball team swept No. 3 seed Penn State U. in a near-perfect performance to win its first national championship since 1997.
The wooden national championship trophy sat safely behind the court as the two teams warmed up, and television cameras panned over the large and boisterous crowd in Maples Pavilion.
“We had 6,635 people there today,” said senior opposite Evan Romero after the match. “That’s 6,600 more people than we had our freshman year. As they’ve come to our games, it’s just revived us.”
The stands erupted in cheers as Penn State missed the opening serve of the match. But the Nittany Lions would fight back to win the next point, a back-and-forth pattern that recurred for the majority of the first set.
Every hitting option was delivering. Junior outside hitter Spencer McLachlin had an early kill that deflected off Penn State’s blockers, while Romero killed a ball cross-court. Sophomore outside hitter Brad Lawson came alive at 7-5, killing a ball straight down the line.
Consecutive missed serves from Stanford in addition to Penn State kills kept the Nittany Lions in the game, with the set tied as late as 19-19. But four Lawson kills in the final stretch, combined with two from Romero and an ace after a timeout, helped the Card pull away. Romero slammed a ball hard down the line, tipping off Penn State libero Dennis Del Valle’s hand, to win the set, 30-25.
The second set opened with a McLachlin roll shot that landed untouched at the 10-foot line. But the Nittany Lions gained some momentum after a well-executed dump by setter Edgardo Goas and multiple Stanford hitting errors, taking their biggest lead of the match at 10-5.
However, despite a slow start, Stanford fought back with a run of its own. Sophomore middle blocker Gus Ellis used Penn State’s block for a kill, while a Romero hit was sent flying into the stands by a misplaced Penn State pass. In back-to-back plays, the Nittany Lions over-passed balls, only to have Romero and McLachlin pound them back for kills.
Sophomore libero Erik Shoji had several remarkable saves to keep difficult balls in play. At 13-12, he had a diving dig from middle back that senior setter Kawika Shoji perfectly set up for a Lawson kill out of the back row. Later, Kawika Shoji dug a hard-hit ball that appeared to be going down, leading to a McLachlin kill.
While Stanford heated up, Penn State unraveled. A set by Goas fell untouched past a hitter, and then outside hitter Will Price mishit a ball into the net. Goas was called for a double hit to give the Card set point, and a Lawson serve flew wildly off Penn State outside hitter Joe Sunder for an ace, clinching the second set victory, 30-20.
Stanford led from the first point of the third set – unsurprisingly, off another Lawson kill – and never looked back. Romero began to take advantage of the line, while Lawson continued to dominate. The crowd began to chant, “You can’t stop him!” in reference to Lawson’s stellar play.
“You talk about being in the zone,” said head coach John Kosty. “When a player gets in the zone, you don’t talk to him, you don’t slap his hand, you don’t do anything, just let him be. Brad [was in a zone] tonight.”
The end of the set was all Stanford. Kawika Shoji sneakily set a ball over for the kill, and McLachlin put a ball down off a Romero bump set. Price missed a serve for Penn State, bringing the score to 28-17, and a Lawson-Ellis roof block gave the Card match point. Finishing off a heroic evening, Lawson slammed a ball cross-court to win the set, and national title, 30-18.
“It’s the national championship, there’s nothing really like it,” Lawson said. “It was just great to have a good night tonight.”
Lawson had a phenomenal night, tallying 24 kills and only one error – an illegal back row attack that appeared to have gone down for the kill – to hit an impressive .821. His success extended to the back row as well, as he had five digs and a team-leading four aces.
“Early in the first [set], to be honest, I was nervous,” Lawson said. “But as I started to go through, I settled in. Kawika [Shoji] was just delivering the ball to the spot… and it was easy from that point.”
McLachlin and Romero were also powerful offensive forces for the Card, with 12 and 11 kills, respectively, to aid Stanford to .495 hitting for the match. Kawika Shoji had 47 assists, bringing his season total to 1,455, and both he and his brother Erik Shoji led the Cardinal defense with 10 digs apiece.
For the Nittany Lions, Price tallied 15 kills and two aces. Sunder contributed 12 kills, and middle blocker Max Lipsitz added another 10. Goas put up 38 assists, and Del Valle led the match with 12 digs.
Following the match, the Stanford players received national championship shirts and hats, and fans swarmed the court. Individual awards were distributed to the players and coaches, and the seniors stepped forward to accept the championship trophy. The team posed for photos and took turns cutting pieces of the net.
The All-Tournament Team was announced after the match, highlighted by Lawson, Romero, Erik Shoji and Kawika Shoji for Stanford. To cap off their various accolades this season, Lawson and Kawika Shoji were named co-Most Outstanding Players of the tournament.
Led by a class of seniors – Kawika Shoji, Romero, middle blocker Garrett Werner, outside hitter Jason Palacios and outside hitter-turned-team manager Ed Howell – who went 3-25 in their freshman season on the Farm, this win, the grand finale of the “Worst to First” journey, was particularly meaningful.
“It’s been a long road for us,” Kosty said. “It’s an incredible feeling to watch this team and how they’ve grown over the four years. It really shows what hard work and dedication can do for you.”
“I had hope. I dreamed,” Kawika Shoji added. “I don’t know if I would say I expected it, but I knew that a lot of hard work could get this team far.”