2010 was a very special year for the Stanford Cardinal. After losing an assistant coach to cancer and suffering through some serious setbacks, the team bonded together to realize their late coaches prediction for them - "Worst to First." The seniors on this team placed last in the Pac 10 their freshman year and it was Al Rodrigues who predicted that they would turn all that around. They did. And they were able to do it in front of a home crowd at Maples Pavilion for one of the most emotional finals we have seen.
It seemed that Stanford setter Kawika Shoji had the NCAA Championship trophy in his hands even before outside hitter Brad Lawson had the chance to crush it for the final point. Shoji almost didn’t have to watch Lawson take that swing or hear the roar of the 6,535 fans on hand that night to know the match was over.
During the broadcast of the semi-finals last weekend, announcers Karch Kiraly and Justin Kutcher made mention of the close-knit family that is Stanford volleyball. Nowhere has the bond between the men's and women's programs been as evident as it was this past weekend in Palo Alto.
The volleyball world lost a shining light last Friday. Stanford's long-time assistant coach Al Rodrigues passed away after a 16-month battle with stomach cancer. When he was diagnosed doctors gave him only two months to live, but they had not accounted for the indomitable spirit of the man affectionately nicknamed Big Al. This is a man who managed to come to a Stanford match this season in a wheelchair with a chemo drip attached to his arm. A man who, just six days before his death, managed to keep his trademark smile on his face when Stanford players came to see him.
It was a the tightest of races for the top seed in the MPSF conference. It all came down to last weekend's matches and one loss was the difference between getting the No. 1 seed in some cases and not making the playoffs for others.
The MPSF Conference playoffs begin this weekend and there is little margin of error for any of the teams that made the tourney. This season in men's volleyball it is clear that anybody can beat anybody. Just ask UCLA who lost to last place Pacific in the last match of the season in three sets. The Bruins gave the Tigers their one and only conference win this season.
I'm not getting cocky or anything, but I was four-for-four on my MPSF picks last week and frankly, I'm feeling pretty good about it. After my dismal performance in my March Madness pool this year, I really need to redeem myself. I'm going to give it another go this weekend, but first let's wrap up the quarterfinal matches.
I'm just going to be honest. Everything I say about the men's NCAA playoffs in the upcoming weeks should probably be taken with a grain of salt. I've tried to hold it together all season, but now that the tournament is here, I can't even pretend I'm not biased. I want Stanford to win this thing. And you should too. Let me explain.
With conference titles in hand, three teams earned automatic bids to the national semi-finals this week in Palo Alto. Stanford, Penn State and Ohio State each won on Saturday and will vie for the championship this week. After some deliberation, CSUN was awarded the at-large bid and will be the No. 2 seed for the semi-finals on Thursday.
Someone asked me the other day what I thought about the current men's volleyball playoff format. Right now, the Final Four consists of the winners of the three major conferences who each get an automatic bid to the national semi-finals along with one "at-large" bid chosen from the best of the rest by the men's volleyball committee. This time the at-large bid went to CSUN.
With all last week's talk about the appropriateness of the men's volleyball playoff format and the fairness of weaker conferences in the east and mid-west getting an automatic bid to the Final Four, one thing is clear after watching last weekend's matches -- one team out of the four did not belong there.