The Other Conference

The Pac-12 gets all the media attention, but the regional powerhouse MPSF will be enjoying its time in the sun as the Cardinal battles on multiple fronts. Titles are on the line for the Directors' Cup-owning Home of Champions!

"The Other Conference"

The OTHER Conference to which Stanford Belongs

The most prominent sports on The Farm compete in the Pacific 12 Conference, but there are some damn fine teams that do work in Olympic sports that aren't sponsored by the Pac. This includes the PCCSC for sailing, Pacific Coast Rowing for lightweight rowing, NorPac for field hockey.

But this weekend, it's all about Stanford sports that will be battling for Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF from here on out) titles in men's volleyball, women's water polo and women's lacrosse. Sports like these are largely responsible for Director's Cup after Director's Cup after Director's Cup after Director's Cup after Director's Cup…after Director's Cup, after Director's Cup. 

Because I'm so narcissistic, now is the time to tell you that I will be involved working all of these MPSF Championships in one form or another.

Self-promotion aside (though I have a feeling that won't be the last time in this article), we'll go in chronological order, starting with the tournament that has already started.

MPSF Men's Volleyball Championships (April 21, 26-28)

Why You Should Give a Damn:
For my money, this is by far the hardest conference tournament in any collegiate sport in the NCAA. That's because the MPSF in men's volleyball is the strongest conference in any collegiate sport in the NCAA - stronger than the SEC in football and baseball, stronger than the Big East and ACC in basketball; this conference is the real deal. The MPSF boasts seven teams in the top 10 in the AVCA Division I-II rankings. Heck, UC San Diego, the No. 12 team in the country, didn't even qualify for its own conference tournament!

Now, there are only about 30 teams that play men's volleyball at the Division I-II level, but it's not for a lack of talent (this may or may not be the subject of a later article from yours truly). The benches of MPSF teams are filled with Volleyball Magazine "Fab 50" selections (top-50 recruits out of high school). For all these reasons, men's volleyball is the best sport you're not watching.

The Low Down on Stanford:
With a dominating four-set victory over the Malibu Roofing Company in the MPSF Quarterfinals (the Pepperdine Waves), Stanford (21-6 overall, 17-5 MPSF) has advanced to the MPSF Semifinals and will take on the BYU Cougars at the Galen Center in Los Angeles (USC is the No. 1 seed, and as the highest remaining seed, hosts the semifinals and finals). The Cardinal have been carried by four of the team's seven seniors in outside hitter Brad Lawson, libero Erik Shoji, setter Evan Barry and middle blocker Gus Ellis, as well as by three sophomores- outside hitters Brian Cook (younger brother of Stanford women's volleyball setter Karissa Cook) and Steven Irvin and middle blocker Eric Mochalski.

Lawson is most well-known in volleyball circles for his 24-kill-in-28-attempts (with just one attacking error- he had a foot on the line in a back-row attack, which would have otherwise been a kill) performance in the 2010 NCAA Title match against perennial conference championship-buyers Penn State. It is arguably the best performance in any national championship game. The dude is amazing- he averaged about five kills per set that year, and is averaging just north of four kills per set this year (sets are now played to 25 instead of 30, accounting for the "drop-off" in production from Lawson). The placement on his swings is unbelievable and has one helluva smash when he wants to go all-out.

Evan Barry didn't have easy shoes to fill when he became the starting setter in 2011; he only had to replace the AVCA National Player of the Year in Kawika Shoji. He had some rough spots last season, but leads the nation in assists per set this year at more than 12 per. Barry has become a lot more confident this year and is playing with a lot of swagger.

Erik Shoji, for head coach John Kosty's money, is the best libero in the history of college volleyball. As libero, it's his job to keep rallies going by digging out the swings of opposing hitters, and he sure has had some memorable ones. The younger brother of Kawika Shoji, Erik had a huge dig in the fourth set against Pepperdine last Saturday

( that's me on the call with former Olympian and Stanford Hall of Famer Kim Oden) and had a "kick assist" - yes, that's right, a kick assist- against UC San Diego his freshman year which got him on SportsCenter Top Plays ( this is one of the best plays ever).

Stanford's Chances:
Very much 50-50. Stanford was the only team to sweep BYU this year, doing so in Provo as well, but the Cougars were not at full strength in those two matches.

In a perfect world, this match would only be meaningful for seeding for the NCAA tournament. But there are inexplicably only four teams that make the NCAA tournament, and with three conferences receiving automatic bids, that leaves just one at-large to be snagged (though with Conference Carolinas receiving an auto-bid come 2014, the field will likely expand to eight- about freakin' time!). Thus, in years where the MPSF quarters are all chalk, the 2-3 match-up in the semifinals pretty much determines who gets the at-large bid should the top seed win out. This is probably the biggest match of the non-NCAA tournament regular season every year, out of any conference.

This match will be an all-out war. BYU is SO GOOD and has been knocking on the NCAA Tournament door for the past few years without luck. I think this match goes five sets. I will be at the Galen Center in the flesh (leaving in 15 hours as of 8pm Wednesday, still no hotel booked for the night), and I can't wait.

Even if Stanford wins on Thursday, there is no guarantee the team gets in the NCAA Tournament, which will be held at the Galen Center the following week. As per this article from Vinnie Lopes (creator of the men's volleyball blog OffTheBlock- one of the best blogs for any college sport), this is one of the tightest races for an at-large bid ever, as USC, UC Irvine, BYU and Stanford (the four remaining teams in the MPSF tournament) all are pretty close:

The MPSF tournament is so much tougher than the NCAA tournament in men's volleyball, making Thursday's doubleheader with Stanford-BYU and USC-UC Irvine something to salivate over.

MPSF Women's Water Polo Tournament- April 27-29 Avery Aquatic Center, Stanford, CA

The MPSF is just about as strong in women's water polo as it is in men's volleyball. Like men's volleyball, the MPSF has seven teams in the top-10 for women's water polo. I give men's volleyball the slightest edge in terms of being a stronger conference, because there is a bit of a more significant drop-off between the top half and bottom half on the water polo side.

That said, there are five very good teams in the eight-team MPSF water polo league (Stanford, UCLA, USC, Cal and Arizona State), a pretty solid sixth (San Jose State), and a couple of decent sides taking seventh and eighth (San Diego State, Hawai'i). Like men's volleyball, the MPSF will gobble up every at-large bid for the NCAA Championships (there are two to be had for the eight-team tournament). Each team gets three games, and as a result of there being only two at-large bids, the third-place game is usually the most important game of the tournament.

Why You Should Give a Damn:
Stanford won the NCAA Title last year by thwarting Cal 9-5 in the championship match and is defending its hardwood just about as well as you can - 21-1 overall, 7-0 in the MPSF and the No. 1 team in the country. And this is without two of its best players- Annika Dries and Melissa Seidemann, who are both training with the US National Team to try to make it to London this summer. In their absence, two freshmen have propelled the offense, as Kiley Neushul and Ashley Grossman have combined to score 86 goals this season. Junior Kate Baldoni has been a wall in the net for head coach John Tanner, boasting a 4.48 goals allowed average (that's really, really good) to go along with a save percentage nearing 70 (that's fan-freakin'-tastic).

Stanford's Chances:
Pretty damn good, but it doesn't matter nearly as much for John Tanner's team as it does for Kosty's Crew. Barring an eighth place finish this weekend, Stanford should be in the tournament regardless of how the team plays this weekend. Last year, Stanford lost in the semis of the MPSF tournament, eventually finished third and then went on to win the whole damn thing at the NCAA Championships. That being said, it should be a very exciting weekend of water polo on The Farm. As an added bonus, if you come to Avery, you can watch me struggle through my first water polo broadcasts (I'll be doing the semifinals, third place game, and championship game on Saturday and Sunday).

MPSF Lacrosse Championships- April 27-29, Laird Q Cagan Stadium, Stanford, CA

As good as the MPSF is in men's volleyball and women's water polo, it is almost equally bad in lacrosse. There are a grand total of zero teams from the MPSF in the ILWCA Top 20, as well as another bagel's worth of squads in the RPI Top-25. However, the conference is getting better- Denver is usually solid (the Pioneers boast the league's best RPI at 26), Oregon has had its best season this year (undefeated in MPSF play) and first-year program San Diego State had its moments (2-5 in the MPSF, hung tough with Denver and Stanford and got out to a 1-0 lead against the No. 14 Ohio State Buckeyes in its first game in program history, which was held at Laird Q. Cagan Stadium for some reason, and I was PA'ing it).

Why You Should Give a Damn:
Stanford has won seven straight MPSF tournament titles, but that streak is in jeopardy this year by earning the No. 3 seed in the four-team tournament (there are eight teams overall in the conference). Head coach Amy Bokker's Stanford Cardinal were ranked sixth in the pre-season and scheduled tough in the non-conference for an RPI boost. While the Card did knock off No. 9 at the time James Madison, they also got tortured by defending-champion Northwestern 18-6 in the Danna Bowl, worked by Ohio State late in the second half, lost to Notre Dame on the road despite a late comeback and got swept on a three-game swing to Brown, Harvard and Albany (the Great Danes are very good) en route to a 2-7 non-conference campaign, thereby eliminating any hope of an at-large bid.

Those struggles translated into the beginning of the conference season, where after a 20-3 thumping of Fresno State (the Bulldogs finally won their first game in program history in this their fourth year- one of their assistants, Lauren Schmidt, played at Stanford), the Cardinal lost to the top two teams in the conference- Denver on the road by three, Oregon at home by six. Since then, the level of competition has leveled off, but the Cardinal have been able to cash in with four straight victories to get into the MPSF tournament with a 7-9 record overall and 5-2 in conference. They have a chance for revenge against No. 2 seed Denver, with the winner playing the winner of the Oregon-Cal contest on Sunday.

If you like my voice, you can hear it on Friday over at The Q, as I'll be doing PA for the semifinals and finals (no-go on Sunday- I'll be at water polo). If you hate my voice, avoid The Q at all costs and just go to the MPSF Championship game on Sunday, where you will get to hear someone else speak at you.

Stanford's Chances:
Conventional wisdom says not too good, but never count out a team that doesn't know any better than to win the tournament. This is a team that has dominated its conference for the better part of a decade and is used to going to the NCAA tournament (the MPSF has received an auto-bid to the NCAAs since 2010). The last time Stanford didn't go to the Lax Dance was in 2009 in what can be considered the second-biggest screw-job in the history of sports, right behind the Tuck Rule game on January 19, 2002. After winning the MPSF tournament, the Cardinal scheduled Louisville and Penn to boost its tournament resume. After beating the 9-7 Cardinals at home, Bokker's Bunch shocked the No. 3 Quakers on the road 8-6 to all but wrap up an at-large bid with a 14-4 record. However, the Cardinal were left out in favor of an east coast team in order to cut down on travel costs on the NCAA's side, or so the story goes.

All that said, it's going to be tough to beat Denver and Oregon, especially when the Pioneers have had an NCAA bid or two taken away from them by this Stanford group in the past.

Look Out For:
Since I forgot to talk about individuals earlier, keep an eye on the Boeri twins- Emilie and Anna. The seniors have combined for 55 goals and 90 points. Anna Kim has really come on as of late, sparking the comeback against San Diego State (Stanford was down 11-8 with 17 minutes to go in the game) and has 21 goals in nine games. Hannah Farr, the laxer by spring and futboler by fall, has 20 goals. The goalie is Lyndsey Munoz, who has stopped about 42 percent of the shots she has faced (40 percent and up is considered pretty good).

‘Twill be an exciting next four days for Stanford's non-Pac-12 teams. Time for the MPSF to take center stage.

About the Author: Kevin "Kevo" Danna, Stanford '09, started out as a student manager-in-training for the Men's Basketball Team on October 14, 2005 . After graduating with a degree in Spanish and becoming a minor hip-hop radio celebrity, Kevo lives and breathes Stanford sports. He is rapidly becoming "the Ted Robinson of Stanford Sports" in terms of visibility, omnipresence, and Olympic sports interest.

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