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Back on top: Women’s volleyball upsets No. 1 Penn State in five-set thriller

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The number ‘one’ may be the loneliest number no longer. On Monday, the number one and Stanford’s women’s volleyball team will likely hold a long-awaited reunion, as for the first time since November 2012, the Cardinal will regain the distinction of being the nation’s top-ranked team.

No. 2 Stanford (3-0) knocked off No. 1 Penn State (3-1) in a five-set thriller at Maples Pavilion on Friday, 18-25, 25-23, 25-22, 16-25, 15-10. It was perhaps the best women’s volleyball match in the country since…well, the last time these two teams met in December.

That match, the NCAA tournament’s Lexington Regional final, was a five-set Cardinal loss, one that junior Inky Ajanaku said would “burn in our minds until December.”

Well, the Cardinal did not have to wait long to get their revenge. They won the 16th matchup between the two volleyball powerhouses, evening the all-time series at eight matches apiece.

Friday’s match was a back-and-forth affair, in which Stanford’s vulnerabilities were on rare display, as they lacked a go-to offensive option at times and were also plagued by a lack of ball control. However, it was the Cardinal’s experience, as well as some strong performances from unexpected sources, that gave them the edge in the fifth set, when the Nittany Lions’ youth was exposed.

“Both teams learned a lot,” said head coach John Dunning. “We are lucky we came out on top. We fought hard and didn’t give up, and that was key. But both teams have to look at that match and go, ‘We can be a lot better.’”

Penn State’s 2014 recruiting class is widely considered to be one of the best in the history of the sport, and head coach Russ Rose turned to three freshmen in the match’s final set, but that’s when things started to fall apart. The Nittany Lions committed eight errors in the fifth — five attack, three service — en route to the loss.

Stanford took advantage of its opponent’s mistakes, as it took a 7-6 lead on an attack error by freshman Simone Lee and never looked back, ultimately taking the set 15-10.

3,685 fans were in attendance on Friday in what was the largest crowd at Maples Pavilion since the 2011 Big Spike, when 5,011 were in attendance to see Stanford take on Cal. They all got to see breakout performances from two Cardinal players who have entered new roles with the team this year after playing minimal roles in the team’s 2013 campaign.

Senior opposite hitter Morgan Boukather, who matched a career high with 13 kills in the team’s win over Nebraska last Sunday, is proving to be a key component to the Cardinal’s lineup in the season’s early going. On Friday, she set a career high in kills for the second straight game, with her team-high 15, while hitting .353 and also digging 12 balls.

Another key contributor for Stanford was redshirt freshman middle blocker Merete Lutz, who had just made her career debut last Sunday. Coming off the bench, the 6-foot-8 Houston, Texas native made her presence felt at the net, matching a team-high four blocks while also forcing numerous errors by Penn State’s hitters, unaccounted for on the score sheet. She also had a small impact offensively with her first two career kills.

Junior outside hitter Jordan Burgess notched her third double-double of the year with 10 kills and 13 digs in the match. Junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, despite having fewer opportunities than usual — 5.2 total attacks per set on Friday vs. 7.2 over the team’s first two matches — tallied 14 kills and five blocks for the Cardinal.

Stanford was forced out of system early in the match, as Penn State was serving well and their hitters on the right side were simply no match for the Cardinal’s usually-dominant block. Penn State freshman outside hitter Ali Frantti had five of her match-high 22 kills in the first set, and hit .405 (22-5-42) overall in the match.

The Cardinal were outhit .302 to .196 in the first set, as a lack of ball control led to few offensive opportunities — which were rarely effective when put in play. However, Stanford turned it around in the second set with help from Penn State’s seven attack errors and four service errors.

The tone of the match was set early, as the two legendary coaches — Rose and Dunning — called seven timeouts combined over the first two sets and 15 overall in the match. It was as if the match was being played on a chessboard, with each coach looking to quell shifts in momentum with small personnel and strategic adjustments.

At the break, Dunning said to the Pac-12 Networks, “We were bad [in the first set], they made us look bad…we’ve got to grow up a little bit more.

“Our team needs to be good enough to relax in big situations and also compete like crazy.”

Ultimately, that’s what Stanford did, as it came out of the break and edged the Nittany Lions in a close third set. With a team full of upperclassmen, they remained poised after they dropped the fourth set with a .125 hitting percentage in the frame and ultimately took the fifth and the match.

“You have to learn things as you go,” Dunning said. “One of those things is that no one is going to give you anything. You have to fight for it. We are a team that everyone wants to beat, so you can’t shrink back from that. You have to see if you can handle the other team coming right at you and you being able to go right back at them.

“Tonight, that is a little bit of what we did. It makes our team understand what it takes and have a little bit more confidence.”

No. 2 — at least until the new AVCA rankings are released on Monday — Stanford hosts the final game of the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge on Sunday against No. 9 Illinois. First serve is set for 11 a.m. and the match will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.

Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jordan Wallach is a Senior Staff Writer at The Stanford Daily. He was previously the Managing Editor of Sports, a sports desk editor for two volumes and he continues to work as a beat writer for Stanford's baseball, football and women's volleyball teams. Jordan is a junior from New York City majoring in Mathematical and Computational Science. To contact him, please send him an email at jwallach 'at' stanford.edu.