After an up-and-down regular season that saw some tough losses to ranked opponents and ended without a conference championship, Stanford women’s volleyball enters postseason play this week riding a nine-match winning streak. As one of only two teams to earn berths in all 32 NCAA tournaments, the Cardinal is poised to make a run at its seventh national title and its first since 2004.
Although the Cardinal (24-5) finished third in the final AVCA rankings before the postseason, the team is seeded No. 7 overall in the NCAA tournament. As a result, Stanford earned the right to host the first two rounds of the postseason for its rank in the top 16. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Champion Hampton (19-10) will make the cross-country journey for a tough first-round matchup against the Card on Thursday at Maples Pavilion.
Looking forward, the Cardinal will move through the Lexington, Ky., Regional and face the winner of the other first-round matchup at Maples between Oklahoma (23-7) and Alabama (24-4). Other potential roadblocks on the team’s road to the Final Four in Seattle include No. 2 Penn State (28-2), against whom the Cardinal own a 2-3 record all-time in postseason play, and No. 10 Minnesota (27-6). Penn State is the only other team that has also earned a bid to all 32 tournaments.
Perhaps more important than their performance on the court, this season’s team boasts the experience and poise that last year’s team lacked in the tournament. In 2012, the Cardinal was very young, as it welcomed the top recruiting class in the nation — five high school All-Americans, four of whom earned spots in the starting rotation.
After a somewhat bumpy 3-2 start to the 2012 regular season against tough opponents on the road, Stanford breezed to a 27-3 overall record, without having to deal with much adversity on the court save for a loss at USC in the middle of its conference schedule. The team’s somewhat passive attitude could have been to blame for getting upset in the regional final by Michigan.
“In years, they’re young,” said head coach John Dunning, “but they learned a lot last year. You had to give Michigan credit when they beat us in the playoffs, but our team talked a lot about it and learned a lot having gone through that experience.”
“We didn’t really know what we were getting into — the hype of the tournament,” said sophomore middle blocker Inky Ajanaku. “We just had to hear it through the other girls’ mouths, but this year we know exactly what we need to do to be successful.”
The Cardinal faced some adversity earlier this season, namely a 3-5 record against ranked opponents after its heart wrenching five-set loss at home to then-No. 4 USC. Yet the team developed a new dynamic, and the players seemed to rededicate themselves after that loss.
Stanford’s renewed focus and ability to maintain its composure in high-pressure situations is responsible for its season-high nine-match winning streak to end the regular season. Straight-set victories on the road at high altitude against Colorado and Utah and the team’s marquee win of the season—a sweep against then-No. 3 and eventual conference champion Washington on Nov. 20 — has the Card playing its best volleyball heading into the postseason.
“We are a much different team than we were last year, and that’s in our favor,” said senior outside hitter Rachel Williams. “All of our starters know what it’s like to play in the tournament: the importance of every match and of every point, and controlling the momentum and the ball as much as we can.”
While the team’s character will certainly be valuable to a postseason run, the Cardinal’s strong play — both offensively and defensively — will be what propels the team forward. It starts with a balanced offense and sophomore setter Madi Bugg’s ability to distribute the ball to both the pins and the middles.
Ajanaku—who was selected as the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for the last week of November—has been able to anchor the team’s offense of late, averaging 3.1 kills per set and a .465 hitting percentage over the Card’s nine-match winning streak, compared to 2.41 kills per set and a .414 attack percentage over her previous 18 matches.
“[Bugg] is doing a great job spreading the ball around,” Ajanaku said, “and our outsides are doing a great job putting it down, which opens up spots for me on the court.”
“We’re one of the teams that can either use our middles to beat people, or make people worry about our middles and instead beat them somewhere else,” Dunning added. “We have balance, and everybody knows it.”
On defense, Stanford’s steady play at the net has held its opponents to a .170 hitting percentage this season. The team ranks third in the nation with 3.02 blocks per set and is led by senior middle blocker Carly Wopat, whose 1.41 blocks per set average is 16th-best in the country. Junior libero Kyle Gilbert leads the team with 5.06 digs per set, and her play of late has encouraged her head coach.
“The thing for us that’s improving the most right now is not just that we’re digging balls, but that we’re digging them with more control,” Dunning said. “That was one of the things that we’ve been trying to work on.”
While the Cardinal must first take care of business on its home court in the first two rounds and then against No. 10 Minnesota, all signs point towards a clash with Penn State in the Lexington regional final, which will be Stanford’s toughest match of the year. The Nittany Lions’ only losses this season came against No. 1 Texas and then-No. 15 Michigan State. A tussle between Penn State and Stanford would promise an intense battle at the net, as the teams rank first and third nationally in blocks per set. Yet for the Card, it will just be another hurdle in their season-long chase for a championship.
“I like our team for those two reasons — we have a lot of belief in what we’re doing and our players work together really well,” Dunning said. “When the pressure grows, we’re one of those teams that could just smile at it.”
Stanford’s first-round matchup against Hampton, which is making its first tournament appearance, is set for 7 p.m. on Thursday at Maples Pavilion.
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.