Stanford Playing With a Purpose

By Laura Behnke
|  Sunday, May 9, 2010  |  Updated 7:03 PM PDT
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Stanford Playing With a Purpose

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They are the top-ranked team in all the land, own the number one seed in the NCAA tournament, and now the Stanford men's volleyball team is just two wins away from its first national title since 1997.

"It has been a great ride," senior All-American Evan Romero said this week.  "We've had our ups and downs but it's been fun.  We've all grown together."

The Cardinal have already achieved most of their goals this season, with one huge accomplishment to go--a national championship.  Stanford begins that quest Thursday night in a semifinal matchup against Ohio State at Maples Pavilion.  The title game is set for Saturday.

The fact that the Cardinal are considered the favorite to win the national championship is impressive, but considering where they came from, it's amazing.  The senior class suffered through a miserable 3-25 campaign during their freshman season.

"We were the worst by far and away our freshman year," Romero recounted.  "We could not catch break, though we probably didn't deserve it because we weren't talented at all."

But they were hungry.  Nearly all of the five freshman came from winning backgrounds and were unfamiliar with the struggles of losing.  So they decided to do something about it.

"During that season we set out with a mantra of going from worst to first," senior Kawika Shoji said.  "Hopefully we would get to the top by the end of four years."

It didn't take that long.  In March the Cardinal were in first place in the Pac 10 and took over the top spot in the polls.

"Right now we are number one team in nation and I am very proud of that," said outside hitter Ed Howell.

But the players are only part of this success story. The "worst to first" mantra was actually started by assistant coach Al Roderigues during van rides to and from all those losses four years ago.

"Al is the patriarch of Stanford Volleyball in general," Howell said with a smile.

But just as the team was turning that mantra into a reality, Big Al--as the players call him-- lost his battle with cancer.  Roderigues passed away on March 19, but he continues to inspire the Cardinal.

"He was and is a huge motivational factor for us," Romero said.  "You can see him in the way we play and act on the court."

"He always kept our spirits up," Shoji remembered from that miserable freshman season.  "He kept things in perspective and always told us to just be patient."

Roderigues was able to see that patience pay off.  The assistant coach died one week after the Cardinal claimed the number one ranking in the nation.

"It was special because he got to see us at the top," Howell said.  "It was his goal too, not just ours."

While the team is on the verge of even more greatness this weekend, the seniors insist the end is not near.  They may be graduating next month, but Big Al's message will remain.

"The best part is this will all continue on," Romero said.  "Yeah, we will graduate, but the younger guys will keep going on.  The foundation has been built." 

And no matter what happens on the court this weekend, a program has been restored and a legacy left by a class and a coach.

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