The No. 11-seeded Stanford women’s volleyball team entered the NCAA Tournament with high expectations and hopes of turning its tumultuous regular season around after dropping three of its last five matches. Unfortunately, just two days into the tournament the Cardinal (22-8) found itself knocked out, victims of a huge upset at the hands of unseeded Michigan (22-12).
The Cardinal’s first-round matchup was against Sacred Heart (27-8), the winner of the Northeast Conference. Eager to prove that it was ready to compete for a national title, Stanford came out in force in the first set. Redshirt freshman outside hitter Lydia Bai stole the show early, posting seven kills and two blocks while leading the Cardinal to a 25-14 victory in the set. Overall, the Stanford defense was tremendous, holding the Pioneers to a .057 hitting percentage.
The second set did not go quite as well for Stanford, however. The Cardinal looked sloppy throughout, committing five net violations and nine total errors. Despite four kills and six digs from sophomore outside hitter Rachel Williams, who would finish with 18 and 11 for her 20th double-double of the year, Stanford dropped the second set 25-23.
The Cardinal began to regain its dominance in the third set, primarily as a result of its net defense. Sophomore middle blocker Carly Wopat had one of her strongest games in college, posting a career high 13 blocks to go with her nine kills. She registered five blocks in the third set alone, as Stanford eked out a 25-22 win.
And Stanford proceeded to win the fourth and deciding set 25-11 in impressive fashion. Junior setter Karissa Cook registered 10 assists and two blocks in the set. She, too, would finish with huge offensive numbers, putting up 46 assists, 14 digs and a career-high eight blocks in the match. The Cardinal improved to 31-0 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and awaited its matchup with Michigan the next day.
The first set with the Wolverines was a back-and-forth affair, but Williams stole the show with six kills on a .600 hitting percentage. She would ultimately finish with a team-high 16. The Cardinal was able to hold the Wolverines to a .158 hitting percentage while hitting .314 itself and took the first set 25-20.
For the second straight day, Stanford struggled in the second set. Michigan took an early lead and never relinquished it, winning 25-17. Junior libero Hannah Benjamin played tremendous defense with seven of her 19 digs in the set, but it was simply not enough to stop the ferocious Wolverine attack.
Stanford went into the break knowing it needed to turn its game around or risk ending its season in the second round at home. The third set was competitive early, with neither team taking a lead of over one point. Then, with Stanford nursing a slight 11-10 advantage, Michigan began to take over. The Wolverines scored four straight points and eight of the next 10 to take a commanding lead. Redshirt junior opposite Claire McElheny paced Michigan with five kills in the set, as the Wolverines won 25-18. McElheny would finish with a match-high 18 kills on a .410 hitting percentage.
The fourth set was again close early, but two straight service aces by freshman setter Lexi Dannemiller helped the Wolverines pull away. Dannemiller would finish with five aces, and Michigan had 12 as a team. The terrific service game of the Wolverines had a major impact on the match’s ultimate outcome. Stanford dropped the final set 25-20, losing the match and ending its season.
Thus, Stanford’s quest for its seventh NCAA championship ended much earlier than anyone could have expected. Luckily, with just two graduating seniors and three returning all-Pac-12 honorees — Williams, Wopat and Cook — the Cardinal figures to be strongly competitive for years to come.
Michigan will travel to Gainesville to play Florida, which upset No. 6 overall seed Northern Iowa in the round of 32. The winner of that match will play the winner of the matchup between the No. 3 overall seed Illinois and Ohio State.