Perhaps nothing said more about the contrasting attitudes of the Stanford women’s volleyball team and its opponent, the Oklahoma Sooners, than the demeanors of their respective head coaches. While Sooners head coach Santiago Restrepo stood the entire match and was constantly in the ears of his players, 29th-year head coach John Dunning of Stanford was as calm and composed as usual. Dunning’s confidence in his team was evident, and rightfully so, as the Cardinal continued what it hopes will be a championship run in the NCAA tournament.
The No. 7 Cardinal (26-5) extended its season-long winning streak to 11 on Friday night and earned its 21st straight-set victory of the season, 25-15, 25-19, 25-18, over the Sooners (24-8). Despite facing a relentless Oklahoma defense, Stanford outhit the Sooners .215 to .097, holding its opponent under .100 hitting for the second consecutive match.
Sophomore outside hitter Inky Ajanaku continued her impressive hot streak, hitting .421 in the match with 11 kills and five blocks. Over her last six matches, Ajanaku is hitting .491 while averaging 3.86 kills per set and 1.47 blocks per set.
Especially against a difficult defense that was quickly able to turn the ball around, the Cardinal stressed protecting its hitters going into the match and succeeded in doing so. Sophomore outside hitter Brittany Howard tallied a team-high 17 digs, while junior libero Kyle Gilbert added 15 digs.
“The further you get into this tournament, the more you play teams that are better and the net play becomes amazing,” Dunning said. “Once in a while, things happen and teams stop you, so you have to cover each other. We’ve been trying to focus on it, but this time of the year makes you get better at it. You don’t have a choice.”
The match started off as expected, with Oklahoma’s tall front line giving the Cardinal’s outside hitters some trouble at the net — something that they did not have to compete with against first-round opponent University of Hampton. Both Howard and sophomore Jordan Burgess were blocked early on by Oklahoma senior middle Sallie McLaurin, the Sooners’ leading blocker entering the match with 1.37 blocks per set.
Yet the Card was also strong at the net early, tallying four team blocks in the first set from six contributing players against Oklahoma’s three blocks. Each team tried to adjust to the opposing blocks by going with tip shots to catch the other team’s middles off guard with varying success. For Stanford, combatting the opposing block started with sophomore setter Madi Bugg.
“Madi really did a good job,” Dunning said. “She’s getting better every time we play, at either holding people and setting past our middles, getting [opponents] to commit or setting our middles. She’s figuring out how to work both those angles against other teams and neutralize the block a bit.”
A six-point Stanford run near the end of the first set spurred by three Sooner errors saw the Card’s lead jump from 16-12 to 22-12. From there, it quickly wrapped up the game in the next six points. Stanford both outhit and outblocked Oklahoma in the first set, .268 to .073 and four to two, respectively.
The second set was much more of a battle involving nine tie scores and five lead changes. While the Sooners seemed to have to momentum early on and threatened to pull ahead after a three-point run and a 7-4 lead, a service error — one of eight for the Sooners in the match — led to a quick swing of momentum. Stanford earned four consecutive points to take an 8-7 advantage.
While Oklahoma — namely McLaurin, who tallied four kills and a block in the second set — stayed with Stanford for most of the set, a 6-1 Cardinal run saw the team bounce back from a two-point deficit to take a three-point lead at 17-14 that it maintained for the rest of the set.
The third set was much like the first, with Stanford holding a lead from 2-1 until the end that was only occasionally threatened by Oklahoma’s attack. The Card closed out the match with a 25-18 win, continuing to build on the poise and confidence that it brought into the tournament.
“In a crazy tournament like this, focus is one of the major things, so we’ve been working on it each year,” Ajanaku said.
“The tournament frustrates you because it’s different — people are different. People play differently and you don’t get to do what you normally do,” Dunning said. “So one of the keys for us this year — to be better at this than we were last year — is to say ‘whatever’ and go to the next play when a team frustrates us.”
After a mid-week road trip to Lexington, Ky. for a regional, the Cardinal will take on the winner of the second-round match between Pac-12 rival Colorado and 10th-seeded Minnesota in the Sweet Sixteen.
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.