By James Hemker
Down 14-12 in the fifth set and on the brink of surrendering its third loss in Maples, No. 2 Stanford (13-3, 7-1 Pac-12) rallied with a 5-1 run to secure a nail-biter of a match against No. 18 Utah (13-6, 5-3 Pac-12). The band aptly played Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War” as the Cardinal mounted their decisive comeback, but instead of the Roman god of war, it was senior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris who became Stanford’s agent of destruction.
After a Ute service error, Fitzmorris terminated consecutive kills to force deuce and then give the Cardinal the advantage at 15-14. A serve into the net gave Utah a fighting chance, but junior outside hitter Meghan McClure finished a cross-court shot before Fitzmorris put away the game with her third kill in five points. Having emerged as Stanford’s primary attacker with senior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer’s absence, Fitzmorris tied her season-high with 18 kills on .289 hitting.
“When we were doing well, we were attacking, and when we were struggling, we were being passive,” said McClure. “So toward the end there, we were like ‘shoot we gotta attack here. This is it.’ It’s that survivor mentality.”
“I think in general we struggled at times, but we found a way and we scrapped,” said head coach Kevin Hambly. “You can see our numbers went up in the fourth and fifth set. I think a lot of that had to do with us working harder on passing and getting more in-system.”
Almost no one in the 2,300+ Maples audience could have guessed that it would take five grueling sets for the Cardinal to put down Utah after the first, which Stanford took handily, 25-17. The Cardinal bigs loomed as large as they ever have, with six blocks shutting down the Utah offense. Three service aces added to the onslaught.
Utah returned in the second with a new game plan and played Stanford much closer. The score stayed in lock-step to 7-7, but Utah’s Kenzie Koerber got the hot hand and extended the lead to the point that Stanford was unable to come back.
“They’re a great team,” said Fitzmorris. “Their lefties played really well and we don’t see them that often, so that was a great challenge for us.”
The Cardinal appeared to recover in the third frame, opening a five-point lead at 16-11, but the offense became predictable and Utah, the best blocking team in the conference, seized their moment at the net. Six Stanford attack errors, four as a result of Utah’s block, handed the lead over to the Utes. The momentum swing was too great, and despite the set going to deuce, Utah emerged 26-24 with a 2-1 sets lead.
At 2.95 blocks-per-set, the Utes came into the game with the fifth best block in the nation. Not far behind at 2.78, Stanford was ranked as the 13th best blocking team. Both team lived up to their rankings, combining for 29 total blocks with the Cardinal edging Utah 15-14.
“I think we just really focused on, against the lefties especially, making sure that we’re covering their shoulders and watching the set early and making adjustments early,” said Fitzmorris.
Sophomore middle Holly Campbell (nine blocks) and Fitzmorris (eight blocks) casted the largest shadows in Maples, while senior setter Jenna Gray and graduate middle Madeleine Gates each contributed five more.
Backs against the wall, Stanford found itself in the same position as its previous two ranked home matches. Against both BYU and Washington, the Cardinal fell down two sets to one in front of their home crowd. Against both squads, Stanford could not force a fifth set.
“Yep, I definitely thought about those matches a little bit,” said McClure.
“I think these are good opportunities to really focus on our side of the court at the end of the day, and have confidence in ourselves,” added Fitzmorris.
With a half-season of experience now under its belt, the team responded as a team with five active All-Americans should, terminating 18 kills with just two errors to hit .400.
“We changed the matchup a little, and there was a lot better execution,” said Hambly.
Enroute to the 25-18 set victory, Stanford accumulated the same 16-11 lead that they had let disappear last frame. This time, Fitzmorris put away three kills, and McClure ran the table with a kill, an ace, and a block to dash the Utes’ hopes.
Though she twisted her ankle last weekend and had her load managed on Friday night, McClure was a beacon the offense could look to through their second- and third-set struggles. She recorded her first double-double of the year with 14 digs and as many kills on .333 hitting.
“She was on a bum ankle, but she played great,” said Hambly. “She balled out.”
Gray also turned in a double-double with her season-high 60 assists in addition to 10 digs. Her efforts surpassed those of the Utah defense, and Stanford hit .257 as a team while terminating 70 kills, tying the season-high.
Freshman outside hitter Kendall Kipp terminated 14 kills, but the young Cardinal struggled against Utah’s block, racking up 11 attack errors. Both middles were key factors in the offense, with Gates slashing 13/2/32 for .344 hitting, and Campbell putting away seven more kills.
The Stanford defense held the Utes to hitting just .202 behind a season-high 83 team digs. Senior libero Morgan Hentz paced the team with 22 digs. Junior defensive specialist Kate Formico (13 digs) and senior outside hitter Caitlin Keefe (12 digs) made it five players with double-digit ups.
“The defense really picked it up this game,” said Fitzmorris. “It was incredible to see some of the saves from the back row, and they brought a lot of energy to the team when we needed it.”
The match served as a proving grounds for this Plummer-less team. The resilience shown in the five-set match is a sign of the type of strong chemistry necessary for a championship run in the NCAA tournament.
“It was a big win in the way that that’s a good team that will beat a lot of other good teams, but it was also big in a way because we weren’t playing at our best,” said Hambly. “We had to fight.”
Stanford returns to action with its Los Angeles trip this weekend against UCLA and USC.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.