CHICAGO — The youngster, the tallest player on his side of the net who happens to be the setter, came up the biggest when it mattered most.
Sophomore James Shaw made two remarkable plays down the stretch of the fifth set, Stanford’s big guys were huge when it mattered at the net, and the Cardinal capped a remarkable comeback to finally beat BYU, 25-18, 21-25, 22-25, 29-27, 15-12, and advance to Saturday’s NCAA national-championship game.
Stanford (24-8) had three losses to its Mountain Pacific Sports Federation rival this season, including five days earlier in Provo in the league’s tournament title match.
“It is hard to beat somebody four times and you know what, they had us,“ said John Kosty, who has Stanford back in the title match for the first time since it won it all in 2010. “We made some really big plays.”
“This is the first best win I’ve had in my career,” said Stanford senior outside hitter Brian Cook, who led the Cardinal with 19 kills, the last a back-row blast that ended the match.
Senior middle Eric Mochalski added 18 kills and senior outside Steven Irvin 17 for Stanford, which made it to the semis by winning a play-in match Tuesday against Erskine.
BYU’s season ended 21-9 despite yet another fantastic performance by Taylor Sander, the senior who was named the AVCA National Player of the Year. Sander went out with a season-high 28 kills for the MPSF champions.
“Taylor Sander is an incredible player,” Kosty said, “and their entire team played really, really tough all the way to the end. It was an absolute battle and it was one point here or there and that’s how it usually goes with two evenly matched teams.”
Sander also had four service aces and teammate Josue Rivera added 10 kills.
But nothing could make up for seeing two chances to close out the fourth set and then three more ties, at 26, 27, and 28, before Stanford forced a fifth set.
“We had all the chances in the world to finish that set out and we didn’t make the plays and they did,” Sander said. “And it was the same in the fifth. We weren’t able to buckle down and make those plays and they were able to capitalize. That was the match right there.”
BYU coach Chris McGown knew his team squandered a big chance.
“We were doing so many things well,” he said.
But at 27-27 in the fourth, Stanford got a big kill from sophomore middle Conrad Kaminski, who finished with six overall. And then he served a bullet into the back right corner, one of his four aces, to force a deciding set.
“Conrad just stepped up there,” Cook said.
Speaking of serving, Stanford had a whopping 21 errors, which it couldn’t blame this time on the altitude in Provo or the environment at BYU. Shaw had six, Cook four, and Kaminski, and Irvin three each.
But it didn’t matter. In the fifth set, BYU led by two on three occasions, the last at 9-7. And then Stanford came up big play after play. Mochalski had a kill and then a block on Rivera. After a BYU timeout, its last, Mochalski blocked Sander’s back-row attack and it was 11-9 Stanford.
The next point saw Shaw make a fantastic dig on the first ball, libero Grant Delgado made a great set with his setter down on the court, and Cook buried it.
“We made some nice plays at the end,” Kosty said.
But BYU scored the next two points, on a serving error by Shaw and block by Rivera and Devin Young.
And then Shaw made the play of the night.
With his team up 12-11 Shaw went up to save an overpass, using every bit of his length, and set the ball perfectly with one hand to the left pin. Mochalski took advantage and crushed it.
“That’s just instinct for me. I’ve been trying to make those plays my whole career,” Shaw said. “I pride myself on saving balls that are going over the net.”
Cook appreciates it.
“He’s a luxury at the net for passers,” Cook said. “We can be more aggressive with our passing because that’s actually where he likes it, passes that are almost going over the net, because he sets from like 11 feet.”
Shaw is the son of the former Stanford women’s coach, Don Shaw, who led the Cardinal to four national titles.
Irvin got a kill to set up match point at 14-10. Rivera then gave BYU life with a cross-court kill, but Cook ended it with his back-row kill.
“I don’t remember it,” Cook said with a laugh.
BYU won’t forget it.
“It had to be one of the best semifinals that’s been played in this tournament in a long, long time,” said McGown, who won’t get many arguments.
He thought that Stanford, playing its fourth match in eight days and away from home for nine days, might have a struggle.
“For them to come up with energy and do what they did was pretty impressive,” McGown said.
In their previous meetings, BYU won in four in Provo behind 18 kills by Sander. At Stanford, BYU won in five, the scores all-too-similar to Thursday’s (25-22, 20-25, 25-21, 20-25, 15-7) and Sander collected 27 kills, his previous high this season.
Last Saturday, in the MPSF title match in Provo, Sander had 15 kills in a three-set sweep.
“It’s so hard losing and it’s so hard for my career at BYU to be done,” Sander said. “But the hardest part is not losing that match but that I don’t get to battle with my boys anymore. That’s the hardest part for me is moving on from my team.
“I’m going to miss that. It was a fun match and a fun career, but Stanford is a great team and I wouldn’t take any guys over the guys we have on our side of the net.”