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Women’s volleyball wins eighth national championship

No. 1 Cardinal take down No. 6 Nebraska in five-set thriller

The No. 1 Stanford women's volleyball team won the program's eighth NCAA national title after defeating No. 6 Nebraska in a five-game thriller. (Courtesy of Stanford Athletics)

For the second time in three years, the Stanford women’s volleyball team has won the national championship. On December 15, at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the No. 1 Stanford Cardinal (34-1, 20-0 Pac-12) defeated the No. 6 Nebraska Cornhuskers (29-7) in five hard-fought sets to claim the program’s eighth total national title.

Stanford now holds the record for the most all-time titles in women’s volleyball, surpassing Penn State’s seven, a record the Cardinal tied after their victory against Texas in the 2016 NCAA tournament.

“I don’t know that I’ve been part of a match that was, I don’t know, more interesting, more hard-fought,” head coach Kevin Hambly said in the post-game press conference. “The turnaround they had after set three, then the turnaround we had to make after set four, you just don’t see that very often in matches. They played incredible.”

The contest was an explosive back-and-forth between two teams that had made incredible runs through the postseason. Stanford only lost once the entire year, a week-two five-set loss to No. 4 Brigham Young University, a team they manhandled in the semifinals two days prior to their game against Nebraska. The Huskers won their regional bracket by taking down No. 15 Oregon, a team that had just upset the No. 2 ranked team in the tournament, Nebraska. They then ran over No. 3 Illinois in the semifinals, a team many had as favorites to win the tournament. At this point in the year, there was no question that these two programs were the top in the country.

The match itself followed an incredibly unique game script. The evening opened with two hotly-contested sets in which the teams were at each other’s throats. Stanford snuck away with a deuce victory in the first, coming out ahead 28-26, before dropping a 25-22 contest in the second set, leaving the match tied at 1-1.

During these two initial frames, there were 16 combined tie scores and five lead changes. Neither team had any sort of obvious advantage on the other, and both made incredible efforts to remedy any sort of deficit they faced. Stanford led the first set 24-19, with match point five queued up, before Nebraska brought the game to 24-24. Stanford escaped with the win thanks to a big block by junior setter Jenna Gray on Nebraska’s Lexi Sun.

In sets three and four, the game inexplicably turned one-sided. Compared to the 16 tie scores and five lead changes of sets one and two, there were zero tie scores and zero lead changes in the third and fourth frames. Stanford dominated Nebraska in the third set, 25-16, before the Huskers put their foot on the gas in the fourth, 25-15.

Stanford’s struggles during the match, particularly in the fourth set, can be attributed to one major difference between the two teams: the performances of their aces. The stalwart force of Stanford’s offense, the two-time AVCA player of the year, junior outside Kathryn Plummer, was held to a meager contribution during the match. Plummer had a team-high 19 kills, but they came on 59 total attacks and alongside 10 total errors, for a hitting percentage of .153. Nebraska’s defense was effective at limiting both of Stanford’s outsides, keeping sophomore outside Meghan McClure to 7 kills and a .129 hitting percentage.

These numbers may not seem terrible, but when compared to the absolute clinic that Nebraska ace Mikaela Foecke was able to put on, Plummer’s contributions seem minor. The Nebraska senior had a match high 27 kills on .296 hitting, alongside 11 digs and two blocks.

“Foecke was unbelievable in that match. We couldn’t touch her,” said Hambly.

Equally as untouchable was Nebraska’s middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, who had 19 kills on .615 hitting, absolutely eating up the Stanford block.

The Cardinal clawed back major advantages in other areas of their play, with their primary offensive threat struggling. Stanford had another phenomenal night from the service line, throwing Nebraska constantly out of system, and finishing the match with nine service aces, compared to Nebraska’s two. The team was led by sophomore pinch server Sidney Wilson, who brought down a match-high four.

Defensively, the show was stolen by junior libero Morgan Hentz, who solidified her place as the best libero in college volleyball during the national championship. She posed a career-high and match-high 32 digs, the final one coming on the final point of the match. She accounted for nearly half of Stanford’s digs (74) and had 15 more digs than Nebraska’s libero, Kenzie Maloney (17).

The Cardinal also out-blocked the Huskers 11.5-9.0, with senior middle blocker Tami Alade leading the way with eight. Alade’s overall tournament performance was absolutely spectacular; without her defensive presence, the Cardinal would not have been in this match.

“It is incredible…I don’t think a person could be as blessed as this…” Alade said in the locker room. “It is kind of an out of body experience right now and I can’t believe it’s happening, but I just am so happy.”

Offensively, the team was carried by their efficient hitting big bodies, specifically freshman middle blocker Holly Campbell and junior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris. Campbell had 15 total kills on .483 hitting, boasting only one error. Fitzmorris knocked down 14 kills on .265 hitting. Gray’s distribution of the ball was immaculate all night, and the setter finished with 57 assists.

The Cardinal had only been in two other five-set matches during the season, one against Colorado, which they won, and another against BYU, which was their only loss. The fifth set was tense, but the team saw it as an opportunity to reset.

“Before the fifth set started in our huddle, we just talked about playing mini games to five, executing point by point. That’s how you have to break down a fifth set,” Plummer said in the post-game press conference. “You can’t look ahead or behind. A fifth set is short. If you hold up on things, it’s not going to end in your favor.”

The teams traded points, and with the score tied at 9-9, Campbell knocked down an enormous kill to break the tie and give the Cardinal some much needed momentum.

“Huge swing there in the fifth, in a rotation that’s difficult for us, rotation four.” Hambly said. “We were struggling to sideout there. Jenna went to [Campbell], she made a great play. High, flat off the hands.”

With the Cardinal able to pull away, the score came to 14-12. A dig by Hentz came up as a beautiful pass directly to Gray. Gray set a back row attack in transition to McClure, who came down with the tough shot and terminated the kill. The team began to celebrate, but Nebraska called a challenge on the play, saying McClure’s foot was over the line.

The team, held in suspense, waited patiently, planning what to do if the call was overturned. Finally, the tension broke, the play was upheld and the confetti rained from the rafters.

Fitzmorris, Hentz, Gray and Plummer were all named to the all-tournament team. Plummer and Hentz were named the tournament’s most outstanding players.

Hambly closed the incredible Cardinal season by saying, “I think I kind of need some time to calm down, let it set in. I’m too tired to really think about what this means, how excited I am. It’s been a long season.”

For now, at least, the Cardinal can rest easy, knowing that they played a nearly perfect season.

 

Contact Bobby Pragada at bpragada ‘at’ stanford.edu

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