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Women’s volleyball triumphs in five-set thriller against Arizona

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In its second-straight five-set game, eighth-ranked Stanford women’s volleyball (8-3, 2-1 Pac-12) defeated No. 14 Arizona (11-4, 1-2 Pac-12) in an exhilarating back-and forth contest at the McKale Center in Tucson.

The Wildcats set the tone of the match early, recording an efficient 25-15 first set score on the heels of a .360 hitting percentage. The Wildcats displayed tremendous defense along the back line, holding the Cardinal to a .161 hitting percentage. Arizona also tripped up the Cardinal from the service line, serving many balls short and preventing Stanford from running its normal offense through senior setter Madi Bugg.

Stanford, CA, September 12, 2014.Stanford Women's Volleyball vs. Duke at Maples Pavilion. Stanford won 4-2.
Junior Merete Lutz (right) had a career night for Stanford in its victory against the No. 14 Arizona Wildcats, posting an all-time high 20 kills to go along with a series of crucial blocks at pivotal moments. (KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/stanfordphoto.com)

“That really killed us in the first set,” Stanford coach John Dunning said of the Wildcats’ service strategy. “We had to change things up for the rest of the match.”

The Cardinal re-established its identity in the second set, with middle blocker Merete Lutz dominating play on both ends. The junior, who finished with a career-high 20 kills, also provided many of the Cardinal’s blocks in the second set. After falling behind early, the Wildcats tried to direct play around or over Lutz, but the strategy faltered, and Stanford took the set 25-15.

Arizona looked to take control of the match in the third set through suffocating defense. Setter Penina Snuka was particularly active on both offense and defense, providing key digs while setting up hitters Kalei Mau and Nikki Attea. Although the Cardinal were able to respond to the Wildcats’ early run in the set, they were not able to come back, dropping the set 21-25.

The Cardinal were able to take a closely-fought fourth set despite committing several unforced errors. Early in the set, Stanford had three serves in a row go out of bounds. Nevertheless, a diversified attack allowed them to steadily rack up the points.

Lutz’s fantastic play up the middle drew the Wildcats’ blockers away from the sides, setting up seniors Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard.

“A lot of our game revolves around our middles and opposites. First set we didn’t do any of that, but we did much better later in the match,” Dunning said.

Howard in particular was a major force up the left side, playing aggressively and taking smart lobs when the defense was pressing. After losing a heartbreaking rally at 18-18, the Cardinal were able to regroup, winning the last four points and taking the set 25-23.

The decisive fifth set was defined by fantastic defensive play on both sides, with the first 10 points won by blocks. Such a defensive performance is typical of the Cardinal, who entered the game ranked second in the conference in blocks, but unusual for the Wildcats, who were second to last. Bugg’s two blocks early in the set were particularly impressive, and the normally even-tempered setter was emotional after supplying key defense.

After the Cardinal won an incredible rally at 10-10, the two teams split points until the very end of the match, when two kills from freshman Hayley Hodson set up the Cardinal’s third match point of the game at 16-15. Although Lutz’s final kill was a slight mishit, it was enough to ricochet off a Wildcat blocker and give the Cardinal the victory.

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Stanford finishes its swing in Arizona on Friday, when it will take on the sixth-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils (13-0, 2-0 Pac-12). After a relatively weak non-conference schedule, the Sun Devils have started Pac-12 play strong, defeating rival Arizona in four sets before sweeping Oregon State.

Led by three-time All-Conference outside hitter Macey Gardner, the Sun Devils’ attack has been prolific this season, allowing them to win eight of their 13 games in straight sets.

While the Cardinal have historically been incredibly successful against Arizona State, winning each of the last 28 matches, the Sun Devils are a team on the rise. Their victory against Arizona vaulted the Sun Devils to sixth in the country, the highest ranking in the program’s history.

While the Cardinal may not enter this matchup as the favorite, the battle-tested team certainly has the experience to win a tough road game in Tempe.

Stanford will take on the Sun Devils on Friday, Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.

Contact Sanjay Srinivas at sanjay_srinivas ‘at’ stanford.edu.