By James Hemker
Top-ranked women’s volleyball (6-2, 0-0 Pac-12) opens conference play this week at No. 21 Cal (10-0, 0-0 Pac-12) on Thursday before hosting No. 8 Washington (9-1, 0-0 Pac-12) on Sunday. Even though the Cardinal dropped their last game against No. 12 BYU, the win over then-No. 1 Nebraska was enough to propel them back into first place.
After a near-perfect season last year, early expectations for the team centered around winning a ninth title and having an undefeated season. While the latter part of the goal is no longer a possibility, the team’s main objective is still to win the championship.
“This is Stanford, so the expectation to win the championship is there, but there was never an expectation to go undefeated,” said head coach Kevin Hambly. “I didn’t schedule to go undefeated, I scheduled to be exposed and maybe lose some matches along the way. If we win the last six, that’s all we care about. Other people think that we should roll through everybody. I don’t think we ever thought that. We could have scheduled that way, but we didn’t.”
Even though they have played the hardest schedule in the country, the Cardinal continue to climb in the rankings of various statistical categories. Senior setter Jenna Gray averages the second-most assists (12.03) per set in the country and senior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer’s 5.37 kills-per-set are fourth-most nationwide.
As a team, Stanford has the second-most productive offense in the nation, averaging 15.02 kills-per-set. Defensively, they rank 13th with 2.80 blocks-per-set.
But like any good coach, Hambly knows to focus on the areas of weakness. The two losses have given him plenty of material to study.
“We need to get more out of our middles, especially on the slide,” he said. “We’re good in front of the setter, but we need to get more off of one foot behind the setter. We also need to get [senior opposite Audriana] Fitzmorris going. When she’s good, we’re good. Her numbers are OK right now, but she wants to be better, and she can be better.”
These opening conference matches will mark the seventh and eighth-straight ranked opponents the team has played. California is just one of two teams left in the nation with a perfect record, and they have dropped just four sets in ten matches. Part of this success is due to the fact that their schedule has been easy, without any ranked opponents.
Regardless, the momentum of a hot streak can be a beneficial way to enter a big match. Conversely, Stanford will be coming off of its second loss of the season, and the team has historically responded very well to losses. Since Hambly assumed the head coaching job in 2017, the team has gone 5-0 after regular season losses.
“They’re going to be fired up, they’re going to be feeling really good, and they’ve been playing great,” Hambly assured. “We’re coming off a loss. We’re not feeling quite as good. I think it’ll be an interesting match from a psychological standpoint. There’s two philosophies. Be prepared and get the crap beat out of you a little bit or feel really good. Sometimes feeling really good just carries over through the whole season.”
The Golden Bears enter the game with a strong focus on their middles. Preslie Anderson is the only person in the nation still attacking over .500 (.523), and Savannah Rennie ranks eighth overall, hitting .470. The Cardinal have proven that they can shut down elite middles with their wins over Nebraska and Penn State.
“The best way to stop middles is to serve aggressive and take them off the net so they can’t be set,” explained Hambly. “We do that pretty well. We’re a pretty good serving team. So we’re hoping that continues against Cal.”
Sunday’s match against Washington may be the toughest conference match Stanford plays all year. The Huskies’ only loss came at No. 11 Hawaii early in the season. Most recently, they beat No. 9 Wisconsin twice in a total of seven sets. Led by Third-Team All-American outside hitter Kara Bajema, Washington could easily emerge as one of the top programs in the country as the season progresses.
Bajema leads the team in total kills (152) and service aces (10). Averaging 4.34 kills each set, she has turned in double-digit kills in all ten matches, including a 19/2/33 performance against Wisconsin.
“They’ve had a really good start to the season, and I think they’re going to be tough,” said Hambly. “We are going to have to have a good plan against Bajema and to make it simple. Going into the year, I thought them, Oregon, and USC would all be really good. Oregon and SC have had a bunch of injuries, unfortunately, and so if those guys get healthy, then I think all four of us can make a run at the Final Four.”
First serve at Berkeley is set for 7 pm PT tonight. Sunday’s match against the Huskies in Maples will begin at 2 pm PT.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.