In the epic movie The Princess Bride, the hero, Westley, appears to be deceased, until, that is, he gets taken to Miracle Max.
“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead,” Max says.
“There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”
The Stanford men’s volleyball program can relate.
But on May 18, 2021, Stanford reversed course. The Cardinal, who played the spring 2021 season thinking it was its last, was back in business.
Suddenly Stanford men’s volleyball was more than just slightly alive.
The road ahead was going to be filled with obstacles. A few key players had already left the program, hedging their bets with scholarships elsewhere.
Stanford, a program steeped in men’s volleyball history that has won two national titles and finished second on three other occasions, grinded to a 3-14 finish in 2021.
“We came into the gym being thankful every day and showed our gratitude,” 17th-year Stanford coach John Kosty said. “It’s amazingly difficult when you have no control over something that you’re very passionate about and somebody takes it away.
“We went through all of the processes of mourning and grief and everything else because basically the program died.”
So, on one hand, the program had survived.
On the other, well, 3-14 was pretty tough.
Could Stanford bounce back?
As Miracle Max said after he treated Westley, “It would take a miracle.”
Well, what Stanford did in 2021 might not be miraculous, but it was pretty stout.
“We had to prove to ourselves that we were good. We knew we had some solid pieces and we had high expectations for ourselves, but we knew there was a lot of work to be done in the gym to get to that level,” Kosty said.
The team finished 14-14 overall, fifth in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation at 4-8, which in itself was respectable.
That included losing twice to Grand Canyon, a split with UCLA, and two regular-season-ending losses to Pepperdine.
But then Stanford knocked off Grand Canyon in the MPSF Tournament quarterfinals.
Then the Cardinal upset top-seeded UCLA.
Incredibly, still alive.
And then Stanford took Pepperdine to the limit in the final — with an automatic NCAA Tournament bid on the line — before falling 25-20, 25-19, 22-25, 22-25, 15-12.
Kosty told his team going into the tournament there was an opportunity, “because you never say no. You never give up. You say you have a one percent chance, well let’s go out there and prove that this is that one percent.
“That’s what we did against Grand Canyon and same thing against UCLA. We knew UCLA was going to fight and scratch and claw and the resiliency that we had learned through our program being cut was something we put onto the court. And darn it, we fell three points shy of getting into the NCAA Tournament.
“But that resiliency we showed throughout that tournament and throughout the year, from where we started to where we finished, is just a testament to the fight our alumni showed during the time we were cut.”
That time will live in the lore of Stanford men’s volleyball as much as the successes, because it seemed to have provided a launching pad into a new era for the program.
Not that it was easy.
When the announcement of the cuts came, it was during COVID. The team was dispersed.
“The hard part is there were a bunch of tears,” said Kosty, who is starting his 17th year at the helm Friday when Stanford plays host to Saint Francis. “It was as personal as you can make Zoom. That was the difficult part. It wasn’t like we were all here. That’s the hard part about the pandemic and coming back during the pandemic and being cut in the pandemic. The bond you create as a team sport kind of got pushed away and it’s really hard to keep those bonds as tight as you want to.
“The most memorable quote was actually by an alum who said ‘This has taught me a lesson that if you truly believe in something, fight like hell for it.’ ”
Fight they did.
A huge part of the reprieve came about because of alumni contributions. We wrote about it when the announcement came.
But that was just the first step. The team’s leading attacker on the 2020 team, Jaylen Jasper, transferred to Pepperdine. Eventually, Kyler Presho would leave for Hawai’i and Kupono Browne went to BYU.
The returning roster was thin and inexperienced.
“Our alums had created a foundation over those 40 some-odd years to really put us on solid footing on the court. We knew we could win, we had championships, but then it crumbled and it fractured from us being cut,” Kosty said.
“When we came back our alumni rebuilt that foundation by generously donating to endow our program and endowing coaching positions. In doing so it was put on our shoulders to rebuild that foundation on the court and in other peoples’ eyes and in recruits’ eyes and really cherish the opportunity we had to revamp our program and that’s exactly what we set out to do.”
Kosty, an assistant in the program for 16 years before taking over as head coach in 2006, was all in.
“The team that returned deserved a coach that was going to be present for them in their last season,” he said.
Kosty, who turns 59 next month, could, instead, have been looking for a new job.
“My whole point was I was going to give everything I had for the 2021 season. And after the ’21 season step back and see where I wanted to go from there. It didn’t need to be a rush decision, our family is fine, so it was an opportunity for me to potentially step back and re-evaluate where I’m at in my life and then make a decision moving forward.”
The cupboard wasn’t exactly full.
“I talk about it as rebuilding the foundation,” Kosty said. “We started off the beginning of (2022) understanding that we were rebuilding, No. 1, a prized possession in the world of men’s volleyball, something we need to take care of and cherish. We’re one of the cornerstones, and have earned that over the last 40 or 50 years that we’ve been a part of men’s volleyball. And we took it very seriously coming into the season making sure that the student-athletes that were on the team understood the journey they were going to be on, the narrative we wanted to create, and not look to the future but how this program wants to be culturally, how we want to be on the court for the future. And this was the foundation that we needed to lay down.
“And we did it with 12 guys.”
The roster grew to 14 when two players already on campus, junior libero Aaron Li and sophomore libero Matt Martinez, asked to join the team.
“I’m very thankful we brought them on,” Kosty said. They were both talented and experienced high school and club players.
“It was part of the re-maturation of our program. One because they were good volleyball players but also because we needed to get out of the fixed mindset that this was our closed family.”
Indeed, the group had been rallying around being “12 men strong,” but the final group of 14 included three middles and no opposites, so “We had to figure out a system.” Kosty and his staff made some unconventional moves, switched players around, and things, obviously, paid off.
Better still, everyone is back.
Will Rottman, a senior outside from Santa Barbara, who has another remaining year of eligibility, led the nation in kills with 472 (4.37/set) while hitting .303. He led with 33 aces, averaged 1.39 digs, and had 41 blocks. He earned AVCA first-team All-American honors and made the USA national team’s 25-player roster for Volleyball Nations League this past summer.
“Will has really flourished this year,” Kosty said, and a big key was “understanding his game.”
Kevin Lamp, a senior outside from Lake Bluff, Illinois, was next in kills with 237 (2.28/set). He had 32 aces, averaged a dig a set and had 37 blocks.
Luke Turner, a junior opposite from Hermosa Beach, had 199 kills (1.84/set). Ethan Hill, a junior middle from San Clemente, had 178 kills (1.84/set) and led with 79 blocks, 11 solo. Nathaniel Gates, a senior middle from La Jolla, had 141 kills and 74 blocks.
Libero Justin Liu had 235 digs and 86 assists as the senior from Pickering, Ontario, Canada, was an honorable-mention All-American.
The most improved player was setter Nathan Lietzke, a product of Austin, Texas, who averaged 9.91 assists, had 16 aces, was second in digs with 179 and added 62 blocks, nine solo. Kosty said Lietzke’s improvement on the “mental side of setting” was the key for his breakout season.
The incoming freshman class of six has a strong local flavor, including setter Theoren Brouillette, from San Jose; Ryan DuRoss, an outside from Gilroy; middle Luke McFall, from Pleasanton; Rottman’s younger brother, Alex, an outside from Santa Barbara; and Theo Snoey, an outside from Berkeley.
The signing class for 2024 includes a local player in outside Nathan Clinton, who is from Pleasanton, California. Also in the group is Ignacio Brito, an outside from Miami; outside Carson Kneisl from Arvada, Colorado; and Gray Mandelbaum, a middle from Los Angeles.
The newcomers present new challenges. That idea of 12 strong? The roster has 18 players, something that has to help practices, but an entire group to integrate into the mix.
UCLA was picked by the coaches to win the MPSF and got five of the seven first-place votes. Pepperdine was picked second and got one vote, and Stanford — drum roll, please — was picked third and also got a first-place vote.
The Cardinal play back-to-back matches at home Friday and Saturday against Saint Francis of the new NEC men’s conference before playing host the following weekend for two matches against the Big West’s UC Santa Barbara, which is No. 7 in the AVCA preseason poll.
The schedule remains challenging when the Cardinal return to Austin, Texas, hometown of Lietzke, for the First Point Collegiate Challenge when Stanford plays the MIVA’s Lewis (No. 14 AVCA) and the EIVA’s Penn State (No. 4 AVCA). Before MPSF play begins the Cardinal will also play a two-match home series against defending national-champion Hawai’i of the Big West, a runaway No. 1 in the AVCA preseason poll.
“I’m excited where this team can go,” Kosty said.