In what had been a roller-coaster season for Stanford, it seemed almost cruelly fitting for the season to end as it did on Friday night, when the unranked Loyola Marymount Lions (24-8, 13-5 WCC) upset No. 6 and eighth-seeded Stanford (23-7, 16-4 Pac-12) with a three-set sweep (28-26, 25-16, 25-23) in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament, kicking Stanford out of the tournament and ending its season.
The Cardinal — one of the most successful volleyball programs in the country — have lost this early in the NCAA tournament only three times in head coach John Dunning’s 15-year career on The Farm, with the other two times coming in the second round in both 2011 and, before that, 2005.
The loss also marked the first time Stanford has been swept since October 2013. The team has also not been swept by a nonconference opponent since September 2009 and hasn’t lost 3-0 to a nonconference opponent at home since September 2003.
“I thought Loyola Marymount played great,” Dunning said. “I think their coach is really good, I think their team played really well tonight, especially played well against us. I thought they did some really good things.
“And any other part of what you’d want to say… [is] that you’re miserable,” he added. “That’s just how you feel so you might as well be honest.”
Stanford did not play anywhere near its best volleyball, but did have the chance to win the first set with two set points. Cardinal service errors and some well-timed kills from the Lions allowed LMU to tie things up and eventually take the 1-0 set lead.
While the Lions easily won the second set, the third set was going in Stanford’s favor, with the team getting out to two five-point leads. LMU fought its way back, eventually taking as much as a three-point lead, and though Stanford kept the game close over the last few points, LMU would finish the match with a kill to end the Cardinal’s season.
“That just hurts, there’s no way around it,” Dunning said. “We had our chances and we didn’t do it, so that’s on us.”
The loss also marks the last game in the careers of seniors Madi Bugg, Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard, who in their time on The Farm made it to the Elite 8 twice as well as the Final Four last year. The trio also went 61-3 at Maples Pavilion.
“I think that’s what I’ll remember even during this game, playing with our fans in our gym. It’s really special,” Burgess said about her class’s success over the past four years, particularly at home.
“What more could you ask or get from a group of people than what they brought here. And their legacy is huge,” Dunning added.
LMU scored the first two points of the match to get the Tigers out to an early lead. The score remained neck-and-neck for the next few points, but the Lions scored three straight to give the Lions a five-point lead at 16-11. After a Stanford timeout, the Lions kept the Cardinal at a distance, though they threatened to take the set, until Stanford went on an 14-8 run to take a one-point lead at 25-24, putting off a Lion victory for the time being.
At that point, Stanford would have two set points: The first ended with a service error, while the second was erased with a kill from LMU’s Sarah Sponcil. Another service error, this time from freshman libero Halland McKenna, and a kill from Lion Rachelle Suaava would seal the set win for the Lions with a score of 28-26.
While LMU’s .205 hitting percentage was nothing to write home about, Stanford struggled more so on the offensive front, hitting a .189 clip. While Howard had 5 of the team’s 11 kills, other usual contributors, such as freshman outside hitter Hayley Hodson and junior middle blocker Merete Lutz, got off to slow starts, as the two notched 1 and 2 kills respectively despite averaging 3.86 and 3.22 kills per set prior to Friday evening. Defensively, junior middle blocker/outside hitter Ivana Vanjak had 4 blocks to help Stanford come back, but it would not be enough to win the set.
Stanford won the first two points of the second set, but the Lions kept themselves in it, with both teams tying the score five times combined before either team had scored its 10th point. After that point, Stanford trailed LMU for the rest of the set, with the Lions going on to win 25-16.
While Stanford hit its best clip in the second set (.250), it also had its most attacking errors of any set (5). LMU, on the other hand, hit an impressive .571 with only 2 attacking errors and did particularly well on the serve, with 4 service aces in that set alone. By the end of the set, the Lions had three players with 8 kills, while Stanford’s best hitter had a mere 6.
For the third set, Stanford came out after the break with some of the energy it lacked from earlier in the match, and while the first few points were tight, the Cardinal eventually built two five-point leads, their largest leads of the evening. The Lions would fight back to tie the score at 20 off eight kills, three of which came from Sponcil. After three straight points for LMU, the Cardinal fought to keep their season alive, bringing the score within one at 24-23, but a kill from Jamie Lea would complete the sweep and end Stanford’s season.
“They [LMU] served very well, they passed very well,” Dunning said. “And we had to react, we had to change that and we did. I thought we served and passed much better in game three….They [LMU] were doing a great job, and we just didn’t slow them down quite enough.”
Lutz ended the game with a team-high 10 kills, while Burgess had a solid performance with a .320 clip. While freshman phenom Hodson struggled, only recording 7 kills and hitting .148, Bugg’s 30 assists were enough to earn her 5,014 in her career, allowing her to become the third player in program history to reach the 5,000 assist mark.
Some players showed some life on the defensive front, as three had 4 blocks, but the Lions’ attack would prove to be too powerful, as three of their players ended with double-digit kills.
Despite an early and unexpected exit from the tournament and a season filled with ups and downs and plagued by injuries, the team had some flashes of success: Stanford beat eight ranked teams over the year, including a huge upset over then-No. 4 Washington, and had two streaks of six straight wins, including one extending into Friday’s game. Despite starting the season off 11-5, the team ended its last 14 games with a 12-2 record.
“I’m really proud of our team for all that we went through this year, beginning with injuries,” Dunning said, “and to get to the point that we were very excited we thought we really had a chance to just take one day at a time and keep stepping forward. And we’re not going to get a chance to see if we can be any better tomorrow.”
“It’s the way our season has been all year, even winning, it’s been just a roller coaster ride because all the different things,” he added. “And we just hit a little bit of a trough right here and that’s just the way the playoffs are.”
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.