By James Hemker
Like Hercules choking the life out of the Nemean Lion, top-ranked women’s volleyball (5-0, 0-0 Pac-12) slowly strangled the No. 4 Penn State Nittany Lions (5-1, 0-0 Big Ten) in a four-set grudge match Friday night. The 27-29, 25-23, 25-23, 25-21 score line gives a glimpse of how evenly matched the two teams were in Rec Hall on Friday night.
Leading the charge, senior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris doubled her season-best with 18 kills on the night. She had her way with the right side, hitting .341 and committing just four attack errors. Fitzmorris provided the Cardinal with another offensive option as Penn State keyed on Stanford’s star, senior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer.
Behind kills from Fitzmorris and graduate middle Madeleine Gates, as well as two blocks from senior setter Jenna Gray, the Cardinal held a consistent two-point margin to 13-11. Gates had her second double-digit-kills match in the cardinal and white, with 10 kills on 20 swings and just a single error.
The Nittany Lions succeeded in stabilizing the score, and with a 3-0 run they took the lead at 18-16. Three of Stanford’s next five points came off the arm of Plummer, but they would be her only three kills of the first set. A third block from Gray gave the Cardinal set point at 24-23, but Penn State rallied with two consecutive kills. Three set points passed before Stanford’s defense faltered and lost the set.
Statistically, it was the Nittany Lions’ best offensive set, as they hit .341 and their 21 kills marked the only time Stanford would be out-gunned. By the end of the night, Penn State hit just .226, half of their season average of .432 coming into the match.
Senior libero Morgan Hentz kept the young Penn State offense in check, scooping a season-high 22 digs. Junior outside hitter Meghan McClure helped Hentz cover the floor, adding another 10 digs. Plummer was just shy of a double-double with nine digs.
Gray, who tallied a season-high seven blocks across the four sets, loomed largest at the net for Stanford. The two middles, Gates and sophomore Holly Campbell, each had their hands in five blocks, while Fitzmorris’ three stuffs made her the first person not named Plummer to lead the team in points this season. The best blocking team a year ago, the Cardinal just barely won the battle at the net with 11 blocks to Penn State’s 10.5.
After dropping the first frame in their second-consecutive match, Stanford returned to form in the second set, running away with an early 10-4 lead. On the arm of freshman outside hitter Kendall Kipp, who crushed two balls in three points, the lead grew from six and peaked at 10 points, 19-9. The number two recruit in the country, Kipp put up her second-consecutive double-digit kill performance, tallying 10 spikes over the match.
Despite being at the bottom of a 10-point hole, the game was anything but over for Penn State. Stanford had difficulty dealing with star middle blockers Kaitlyn Hord and Serena Gray, and a stream of quick sets to the center of the court allowed the Penn State middles to rain fire on the Cardinal. On a 12-3 run, the Nittany Lions sat just a point under Stanford, 22-21.
Hord was proved to be the greatest challenge for Stanford all night, as the sophomore paced her squad with 16 kills on .517 hitting.
It was in this dire situation that Gray and the offense worked to get Plummer the ball. The two-time AVCA player of the year took full advantage of the opportunities and hammered home the final three kills for Stanford, allowing them to even the sets score 1-1.
It was a difficult night for Plummer, as she slashed 18/8/46, hitting just .217. While the points were not as automatic as in other games, she still contributed heavily on the court with 55 service receptions, more than twice as many as anyone else on the court, and no receiving errors.
Stanford’s greatest lead in the third set came at 14-10, and that four-point lead was as ephemeral as every other lead the Cardinal held. The third consisted of Stanford creating some space with a 2-0 or 3-0 run and then the Nittany Lions running it back to re-tie the score. Fitzmorris gave Stanford an out with a kill to make it 24-23, and on the very next point she and Campbell roofed the attack to win the set.
With their backs against the wall, Penn State took the early lead in the fourth set, but Gray called her own number and dumped off the set to tie things up at 5-5. While she had four kills on six attempts, Gray’s most significant offensive contributions were in the form of her 45 assists
Directly benefiting from those assists were Kipp and Fitzmorris, who traded kills while the score stayed locked through the media timeout at 15-14. After the break, the Nittany Lions threatened to extend the match another set with a small run, but a critical service ace from McClure reversed the momentum
The service stripe was an iffy spot for the Cardinal all night, with the team recording five, led by Hentz’s three, at the cost of 13 service errors. Penn State failed to find an ace, but they committed just seven errors over the four sets, and the Nittany Lions’ tough serving forced Stanford out of system often.
But by this point in the match, the team had ironed out its problems and sailed to their 37th consecutive win on an 8-3 run.
Tomorrow, Stanford returns to Penn State’s Rec Hall to face its fourth-consecutive top-10 opponent in No. 8 Minnesota. The Golden Gophers (3-2, 0-0 Big Ten) swept No. 10 Oregon on Friday afternoon. First serve is set for 2:30 p.m. PT.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.