It’s hard enough coaching a men’s volleyball team through a pandemic, but for Stanford’s John Kosty, there’s an added layer of complexity.
That’s because Stanford is dropping the sport after the 2021 season.
“We’re trying not to have a finale,” Kosty said. “We’re working hard to try and change that, but as it stands right now, this is our final season, whatever we get out of it.”
Stanford announced July 8 that it would drop 11 of 36 varsity sports after 2021, including men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, wrestling, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, and synchronized swimming.
Former Stanford players and fans of the program have done their best to change Stanford’s mind and have raised more than enough money to fund the men’s volleyball program, but for now nothing’s changed.
“From the administration side, they are moving forward with their decision,” Kosty told us, “but we always feel that there’s always hope when Stanford student-athletes and alumni put their heads together and are resourceful and try and find new ways to reinvest our resources into positive change.”
“All 11 sports have come together and the alumni bases have really come together. We have over 200 alums from our program and I would say that over 95% of them have donated to the cause,” Kosty said.
“We’re Olympic sports. We’re used to the battle. It’s a battle that we would love to figure out how to be reinstated somehow, some way. Stanford men’s volleyball understands where we’re at, and the place of men’s volleyball, and part of the legacy of men’s volleyball in this country, and we want to stay a part of it.
“The true drive is that we feel that we belong, the sport is growing, and growing at a rate we’ve never seen before, on all levels, and we want to be a part of that.”
Kosty has a record of 214-170 (.557) as he heads into his 15th season as the head coach. He was an assistant to Ruben Nieves when Stanford won it all in 1997. Stanford last won the NCAA men’s national championship in 2010, Kosty’s fourth year as head coach. Last season, the Cardinal stood 6-11 overall, 2-4 in the MPSF, when the season shut down March 13.
This spring’s Stanford team is obviously dealing with a great deal of pressure.
“They’re handling it really well,” Kosty said. “They’re looking at it as we have some hope in getting reinstated and they feel they have a solid team and a great team culture. No instruction is too big to overcome and they’re ready to battle it out on the court as soon as Santa Clara county allows us to do that.”
Incredibly, Kosty said neither he nor his team has been together on campus since that time in March. Santa Clara county’s COVID status is currently in the most restrictive purple tier, at 99% ICU capacity as of January 7. As a result, the team has not yet been able to meet.
“We are one of the rare cases in the country in that we were not able to come back ever,” Kosty lamented. “The fall sports got a short stint before their seasons were canceled, but we never got that short stint. So I have not seen our guys in person since last March of 2020.”
Accordingly, Stanford has been unable to train as a team.
“We are not allowed to do anything physical with them because there’s nobody there to supervise them who’s CPR trained, etc. And I get it, but we have not been able to train our guys since March,” Kosty said.
“Guys who committed to Stanford volleyball still haven’t had a Stanford experience yet. There’s a lot of things to look forward to. We’re preparing them to get onto campus and COVID protocols and be ready to start training when Santa Clara county allows us to do that.”
When he does get with the Cardinal, he’ll be coaching a group he thinks can do well this spring.
While Stanford lost three seniors, 6-foot-6 setter Paul Bischoff, 6-9 middle Stephen Moye, and 6-7 outside Eric Beatty, the returning roster appears deep.
“We’ve got a great balance of senior leadership and returning freshmen, who are freshmen again, and a group of six newcomers,” Kosty said. “We have a great mix of youthfulness along with experience. We’re excited to get them into the gym whenever that’s going to happen.”
It starts with two seniors in 6-7 opposite Jaylen Jasper and 6-8 middle Kyler Presho. Jasper led the team last spring with 234 kills (4.11/set) and had 33 blocks and 12 aces. Presho had 97 kills, hit .356, and led with 55 blocks (1.02/set), seven solo.
The other two seniors are 6-4 outside JP Reilly and 6-6 Leo Henken. The roster has just one junior in 6-4 opposite/setter Hunter Dickey, who transferred from Orange Coast College.
There are seven sophomores, including 5-0 libero Justin Lui, a product of Pickering, Ontario, who trained with the Canadian national team last fall. He led Stanford with 134 digs (2.33/set) last spring, and also had 179 assists.
“We’re looking for his leadership from that position,” Kosty said. “He’s been getting a lot of touches, so he’s well ahead of schedule coming back for us.”
Stanford has plenty of youth waiting for court time. Other sophomores include Will Rottman, a 6-6 outside from Santa Barbara who was second on the team with 155 kills (2.67/set), and Nathan Lietzke, a 6-6 setter from Austin, Texas, who had 201 assists after starting most of the second half of the shortened season.
“He did a really nice job,” Kosty said. “He’s physically and mentally prepared to lead the team this year from the setting position.”
Stanford’s recruiting class received honorable mention in the VolleyballMag.com NCAA men’s ranking of incoming classes. That includes Ethan Hill, a 6-7 middle from San Clemente who transferred from UCLA.
Kosty is in a difficult spot politically, having to deal with Stanford’s athletic administration while hoping to save the men’s volleyball program. He declined most interviews in 2020.
“2021 is a new season, a new year. We’ve established our ‘Save Stanford volleyball’ campaign. We’re now establishing our 2021 schedule and season, and the scary thing is that we’re still scheduling. Some guys are scheduling for this month still,” he said.
Non-conference matches are especially difficult to schedule because of differing COVID protocols.
“It’s kind of in layers. The true answer is that my understanding is that all volleyball conferences are conference only,” Kosty said. “It happened in layers, which means that everybody’s seasons slowly got shortened. We all made our normal schedules, but as we got late into December, we saw that we’re not going to be able to start until late January or February.”
Compared to the women, there aren’t nearly as many men’s programs and the guidelines are different from conference to conference.
“The MPSF chose 18 matches, I think the Big West is trying to do 15 matches, playing each team three times,” Kosty said. “I think across the country they’re trying to do that.
“Since Stanford is starting so late, we’re not going to be able to get our 18 matches in, but we’re going to try to get as close as possible to that. And we’re very understanding of the fact that our players haven’t played together since March of last year. And so we need to return to play protocol and ramp them up slowly.”
What’s more, four Stanford teams — both volleyballs and both basketballs — will share court time.
“We’ll see how that’s all going to work out,” Kosty said. “We’re excited, and I think all coaches are getting excited about the season, just to get back into the season and start doing what we love to do.”