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Women’s volleyball falls just short to USC in five-set thriller

Freshman outside hitter Hayley Hodson (center) recorded 14 kills and 12 digs for the Cardinal in a five-set loss to No. 3 USC. Hodson has been phenomenal for the Cardinal on the season, posting a team-high 124 kills. (MIKE RASAY/ stanfordphoto.com)

Entering this weekend, the senior class of Stanford’s women’s volleyball team had gone 51-1 in its matches at Maples Pavilion. That only loss came at the hands of USC back on October 30, 2013.

On Sunday afternoon, history repeated itself, as the Women of Troy once again took down the Cardinal at Maples Pavilion in a five-set thriller: 26-24, 19-25, 20-25, 25-17, 15-13. No. 3 USC improved to 14-0 overall (2-0 Pac-12), while No. 8 Stanford fell to 7-3 (1-1).

After going up 2-1 in the match, Stanford needed to win just one of the final two sets to clinch the match, but the squad fell behind early in both of them. In the fifth set, the Cardinal came all the way back after going down 6-1, evening the score at 9, then 12 and 13. But consecutive kills from USC senior outside hitter Samantha Bricio — who had 27 total kills in Sunday’s match and 16 kills in the Women of Troy’s win at Maples two years ago — clinched the victory for the visitors.

“I am not sure nor happy with what happened in Game Four,” said head coach John Dunning. “It takes a lot of strength from our team when you get in tough situations, and what we need to do is find out how to react a little differently than how we did.

“Our team knows it. I don’t think they’re in any way happy with that situation either. I was very proud about how they reacted in Game Five after we got down 6-1. That was a great comeback and would have been a great win.”

Some individuals had strong games for the Cardinal: junior middle blocker Merete Lutz had a team-high 16 kills and hit .500 for the match, freshman opposite hitter Hayley Hodson had 14 kills and senior outside hitter Brittany Howard had 12 kills. But as Hodson said after the match, “It just comes down to eliminating a few streaks of errors and focusing on our side of the net.”

Though USC never trailed in the first set, the teams remained close throughout, as there were 10 tie scores in the opening frame. The Women of Troy took their biggest lead at 23-19 late in the set with the help of a phantom double-touch call on Lutz, but a four-point Cardinal run evened the score at 23. USC freshman outside hitter Alyse Ford, who stands at just 5-foot-10 but has a 31-inch vertical jump, had the final two kills of the set to clinch a 26-24 win.

Stanford took its first lead of the match early in the second set after an 8-0 run spurred by five USC attack errors. The Cardinal were able to capitalize on USC’s sloppy play – 11 attack errors contributing to a -.034 hitting percentage and 3 service errors – to cruise to 25-19 win in the set. It was just the third set that the Women of Troy had dropped all season, after losing just two over their first 13 wins of the season.

The Cardinal’s momentum carried over into the third set after the break, as they jumped out to a 6-2 lead. But USC quickly battled back, tying the score at 7 after consecutive aces from Bricio, the Pac-12’s all-time leader in service aces. The teams traded points until late in the set, which Stanford finished with a 10-5 run. Hodson, Howard and Lutz each had 4 kills in the third game, and the team hit .379 (14-3-29) overall in the set.

The Women of Troy got off to an 8-1 start in the fourth set, causing Dunning to take each of his two timeouts in an effort to stop the bleeding. While Stanford was able to keep the gap from widening, the team was unable to spur a comeback. The Cardinal hit just .029 in the frame, as USC forced a fifth set.

“If you get shaken and the sum of your energies as players doesn’t add up to a lot and the other team is coming back, then you get shaken and you diminish yourselves – how much you help each other,” Dunning said. “If it isn’t going well, you just have to stand up and be tough and fight through it because you can.”

The final set began similarly to the fourth, as the Cardinal fell behind 6-1. Dunning called both of his timeouts once again in an effort to spark the team’s offense, and after the second one – with the 3,492 in attendance at Maples roaring – Stanford finally responded. A four-point run closed the gap to one, and the teams once again went back-and-forth.

USC threatened to run away after opening a 12-9 lead, but a kill from Hodson, followed by a wide attack by Ford and then another kill from Hodson into the back corner of USC’s side evened the score at 12. But Bricio fired three kills to finish off the Cardinal and clinch the win.

Stanford came into the match as an underdog in conference play for the first time in two years, but they might have to get accustomed to it. Next weekend, they travel to Arizona and Arizona State, both teams that were ranked in the top 15 of the AVCA poll last week.

But Dunning, as well as the Cardinal players, see the young team as steadily improving.

“We just have people that are getting better right now,” Dunning said. “They’re just improving. We’re finding out more of what to do offensively to help, we’re finding out more about blocking, we’re trying to figure out defense.”

Senior outside hitter Jordan Burgess remembered that after the Cardinal’s last home loss to USC back in 2013 the team didn’t lose another regular season match on its way to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament.

“Losing in Maples is an awful feeling, but it also motivates us to do a lot better,” she said.

Stanford takes on Arizona in Tucson on Wednesday night, before taking the short trip to Tempe to play Arizona State on Friday night. Both matches will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.

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

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