CHICAGO — On one hand, had Conference Carolinas not gotten an automatic bid, the NCAA men’s volleyball championships would not have expanded, nor would a school like Erskine have gotten to experience the big time.
On the other hand, if Tuesday’s first play-in match in men’s volleyball history was any indication, neither Erskine nor its league are quite ready for such a stage, which in this case was inside cozy Gentile Arena on the campus of Loyola University.
Third-seeded Stanford made short work of the Flying Fleet from Due West, S.C., 25-14, 25-16, 25-16 to advance to Thursday’s national semifinal against second-seeded BYU.
While Erskine’s second season in existence ended (21-7), Stanford improved to 23-8 and gets a fourth crack at MPSF rival BYU (21-8). BYU beat the Cardinal twice this season in league play, and then just three days ago in the league title match in Provo.
“We’re excited to be here and excited to earn a spot in the final four,” eighth-year Stanford coach John Kosty said. “Erskine is a good team and they run the program well. They fought hard the whole night and I think the conference is just going to get better.”
That’s what Erskine counterpart Derek Schmitt hopes, especially after seeing Stanford hit .423 while his Flying Fleet struggled to an .043 mark. And Stanford had 24 blocks and a solo, while Erskine had a total of four block assists. Clearly there was a size mismatch.
“We knew it was a big challenge,” Schmitt said. “Stanford’s been playing great volleyball and they have one of the best offenses in the country. “
Pretty good on defense, too, out digging Erskine 37-24, which included 11 by libero Grant Delgado.
“They’re just solid all the way around,” said Schmitt, whose team once stood 4-5 in an early season that included losses to Loyola, Lewis, and Penn State.
“It was just a great experience for my guys being in this tournament.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t want to end the season like that,” said Erskine sophomore outside Michael Michelau, who had eight kills, eight digs, and one of Erskine’s two service aces. “We wanted to compete with them better, but in two years this team has come really far. I can’t wait to see what the next two years hold.”
Freshman outside Roberto Perez Vargas led Erskine with nine kills. His team trailed by just 13-12 in the third set before Stanford pulled away and put a quick end to things.
“To be able to play against this level of competition makes us hungry to want to be here again next year,” Schmitt said. “It was a big step for us in year two but I don’t think any of these guys are satisfied with that and are thinking what we have to do to get to the next level.”
Stanford knows what the next level is like. The Cardinal, members of the Pac-12 who compete in men’s volleyball in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, won the 1997 and 2010 NCAA titles.
Brian Cook, a 6-foot-5 senior outside who seemed to tower over Erskine, led with a match-high 12 kills and hit .519. Steven Irvin, another 6’5” outside, had nine kills, six digs, a solo block, and two assists. And Eric Mochalski, yet another 6’5” senior, had seven kills in 14 swings with only one error, seven digs, and a block assist.
“I guess at some points it did come down to [us being bigger and stronger], but we just wanted to play Stanford volleyball,” Irvin said. “We wanted to focus on our serve-and-pass game, and let the offense take care of itself.”
It seemed that was for big setter James Shaw, a 6’8” sophomore who had 32 assists, five digs, and five block assists.
It was a mismatch with an outcome that was not a surprise to most volleyball observers, but Kosty was glad to have it behind him.
“It’s something that we have talked about all year,” Kosty said. “We play for today. There is no tomorrow. And we just play for today. We did a really nice job of staying focused on the task at hand and playing Stanford volleyball regardless of who was across the net."