In a spectacular weekend that saw more than 5,500 people gather at Maples Pavilion for the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Regional Finals, the No. 1 Stanford Cardinal (32-1, 20-0 Pac-12) bested their bracket, defeating both No. 19 Washington State (23-10; 12-8 Pac-12) and No. 8 Penn State (26-8, 14-6 Big Ten) by 3-1 scores, gaining a place in the Final Four to be played Dec. 13 and 15 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Friday’s match was against the Washington State Cougars. Determinate smiles on the faces of Stanford’s players and an incredibly warm welcome by the home stadium were a positive beginning to an exciting game.
In the first set Stanford started trading points with Washington State, without either of the two teams gaining definitive control over the frame.
When the Cardinal tried to break away with their first two-point lead (8-10), Washington State immediately reacted, bringing the score again to a tie (10-10). Stanford kept putting pressure on with a team effort led by two consecutive kills from junior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer and a solid block by junior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris and senior middle blocker Tami Alade. The Cardinal managed to gain a three-point lead, which would not be lost for the remainder of the set.
And indeed, Stanford only kept improving their performance, gaining a five-point lead with a 15-20 score and finally winning the set 17-25, with an eight-point difference that seemed to give the Cougars no chance in the rest of the match.
The second set, the only one that Stanford would lose in the game, started in a strange way. After trading a couple of points for a 2-2 score, Washington State scored five points in a row and gained a 7-2 lead, posing a strong threat to claim the set.
After some contended points, the score got to 5-11, with Stanford still chasing. Several kills by Plummer and freshman middle blocker Holly Campbell as well as great blocking from the entire team provided the Cardinal with the strength to come back into the set. With two laser-like Fitzmorris kills, and a serving ace by junior libero Morgan Hentz, Stanford gained a two-point lead, 17-19.
Everything then seemed to be going well for Stanford when they got their first set point at 22-24. But a measured reaction by the Cougars as well as three consecutive attack errors by the Cardinal essentially handed the set to Washington State.
Coming back onto the court after the halftime break, Stanford did not show any sign of shock or weariness, despite being upset in the second set. The Cardinal team first scored 4 consecutive points to open the frame and then, after allowing just two points to the Cougars, gained a 10-2 lead off of Plummer’s service.
Every single point seemed to work out in the best possible way for the home team, as Plummer, Fitzmorris and Alade kept scoring one kill after the other, soon bringing the score to an incredibly safe 14-24 set-point, immediately transformed into a set victory with a decisive ace by sophomore pinch server Sidney Wilson.
The beginning of the fourth set appeared to mirror the previous one, as Stanford scored three points in a row (the third of which would be later assigned to Washington State on a challenge review) and soon, with two consecutive kills by Alade, who kept improving her performance throughout the entire game, the team had a 1-7 lead. A Cougar timeout proved to be of extreme importance for the visiting team, who managed to come back 6-8.
The game was put on ice by the exemplary play of Alade, who finished the game with seven blocks, 12 kills and the highest hitting percentage of the team: .632. Stanford’s head coach Kevin Hambly later laconically commented: “Tami [Alade] really played great! And that’s what she really is.”
This effort was combined with a solid contribution from Fitzmorris, who ended the match with 11 kills and four blocks. These two players boosted the Cardinal to a 16-22 lead.
Stanford approached their final victory gaining a 19-24 match-point. It was Campbell that scored the final of her 10 kills to seal the game, with help from the 52nd assist of junior setter Jenna Gray.
The game was a very organic performance by the Cardinal team, led by 24 kills from Kathryn Plummer, falling short just by one from her season record. Plummer also collected 12 digs. Stanford displayed an incredibly various and diverse scheme of play, which employed every single player at the best of their capacities.
The Cougars ended the game with an outstanding performance of 16 team blocks, showing a great resistance to the Stanford offensive. Alade commented after the game that Stanford was “Playing against a team that know us so well as they do, and had such a great blocking performance, and so I tried to change my mind-set and try to open up more possibilities in transition, and make their job as hard as possible.”
As Hambly later said: “Really hats off to them, they played very well: they gave us just nine points total in the whole match, we had to score over 23 points to win every set and not a lot of team do that. It was a great test to see how we would respond, especially after the second set, and we really had a great reaction.”
Stanford returned to Maples to face Penn State, which had already won 3-0 against the Washington Huskies on Friday. The players found themselves in front of more than 3,200 spectators and two university bands. The atmosphere could hardly have been better for the last game of the season at Maples, as Plummer later commented with a smile: “Great crowd, it was really fun, especially the wave, never seen before in Maples, just awesome to get support.”
The first set saw slow start for the Cardinal, with Penn State able to impose a two-point lead that went all the way from 2-0 to 13-11, without any significant change. As Hambly later said: “They were really prepared emotionally to start off the game, they always come out on fire, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm; we are more of a steady team.”
Later in the frame, two kills by Fitzmorris and Alade were able to cut a Cardinal deficit to three points (19-16), but a service error by sophomore defensive specialist Kate Formico and a good offensive possession by Penn State were enough to impose Hambly to ask for a timeout on a 21-16 score.
Hambly later commented on the service performance of the team: “We made more errors in the serve than we usually do, but what I like is that we didn’t change, but we stayed aggressive and it started turning the game around.”
Wonderful offense by Penn State, culminating with a kill by redshirt senior opposite hitter Nia Reed (who finished the game with 12 kills, leading her team), knocked Stanford out of the set and gave the first frame to the Nittany Lions, 25-18.
The second set started just like the first one, but a great dig by sophomore opposite hitter Meghan McClure and her subsequent kill in the same play, seemed to give some hope to the Cardinal. Penn State was still able to maintain a lead to 20-16, despite two service aces by Gray.
After a timeout, Stanford reacted in a wonderful climax of offensive excellence: McClure – kill, Plummer – kill, Plummer – kill, Plummer – kill, tying the game at 21-21. The Cardinal claimed the set 23-25.
The hero of the comeback, and the MVP of the Regional Finals, was Kathryn Plummer. She commented on the comeback: “After losing the first set we had to restart our mentality, because we could play better than them, we just didn’t do that in the first set, and all of us knew it. In the second set these little plays at the end of the set really made all the difference. Personally I tried to be smart, finding holes in the defense, and we insisted a lot and that payed off.”
From the third set on, Stanford would allow only two tied scores and would not concede a lead change for the rest of the night.
Hambly said after the game: “From the first set to 20-16 in the second set, I thought they were really in control, it took a great amount of will and determination to turn it around, especially by Kathryn [Plummer] and Morgan [Hentz], we started improving our defense, our digs, our blocks, we stayed aggressive on the serve.”
The defense really started working for the Cardinal, moving from just two team blocks in the first set and only one in the second, to five in the third and the six in the fourth. But maybe an even clearer index of Stanford’s capacity to get back on track is Penn State’s offensive percentage, which went all the way from .310 in the first set, to a total of .204 at the end of the match, constantly falling. On the contrary, Stanford’s percentage kept rising and went from the terrible .176 of the first set to a .326 game total.
For the first hour of the game, anything could have happened, and the result wasn’t at all guaranteed, as Hambly clearly espoused: “It felt big to turn it around, it is not easy to do, especially against a team like that, so physical, playing at such a high level. Great credit to our team to be able gain control of the match and later maintain, always being aggressive. It was a hard match and I’m really proud of the players”.
Now Stanford moves on to the Final Four, trying to preserve their 30-game winning streak in the national semifinal against the No. 4 Brigham Young University (31-1, 17-1).
Plummer said the following after Saturday’s match: “The final four is going to be a great occasion also to play BYU. That loss against them, I think, is still present in everybody’s mind, at least in mine, and I’m sure it’s going to be great fun, as both teams grew a lot from the beginning of the season.”
Everything is set for the semifinal match on Dec. 13 and the Grand Finals on Dec. 15, with both games in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In Hambly’s words, “The place is sold out already, it is going to be rocking, great environment, but also really cold weather…”
Contact Didier Natalizi Baldi at didiernb ‘at’ stanford.edu