By James Hemker
Second-ranked women’s volleyball (13-3, 7-1 Pac-12) is heading to Los Angeles to face UCLA (10-7, 5-3 Pac-12) on Friday and USC (11-7, 5-3 Pac-12) on Sunday. While the matches already have the in-state rivalry factor, this weekend will be especially charged as graduate middle Madeleine Gates will face her old team for the first time.
After graduating from UCLA in three years with a degree in economics, Gates was accepted into the statistics master’s program here on the Farm. Following the graduation of All-American middle Tami Alade at the end of last year, Gates, an All-American herself, entered the picture and stepped in to serve as the veteran middle for the Cardinal.
Gates’s expertise at the net has already been on display this season, as she leads the team in blocks (79) and her 130 kills sit just behind freshman outside hitter Kendall Kipp’s 131 for third. On top of that, she is the most efficient attacker for Stanford, hitting .338.
For Gates personally, she has been doing her best to simply think of the return as just any other match, but she admits that this week leading up to it feels different.
“I’ve been thinking about it just a little bit all along, but it’s mostly been this past week,” said Gates. “It’s a little strange watching film on people I’ve practiced against and played with. I’m excited to see friends, but at the end of the day it’s another game.”
As for whether the team will be looking to get insider information from her, head coach Kevin Hambly doesn’t see much of a place for it. He plans to see if she will want to add anything after the team has its scout meeting, but he isn’t looking for secret hand signals or code words.
“Theoretically she can be an extra resource, but we aren’t going to pull on that resource a ton,” he said. “It’s an emotional enough match for her. She’s been roommates with these guys, she’s played with these guys, so it’s going to be hard. I coached against my former team and that was really emotional.”
As far as the opponents themselves, both teams have tremendous potential, but injuries and other factors have kept them stifled in the middle of the conference.
UCLA has one of the most productive offenses in the Pac-12, ranking first in attacks per set (35.77) and second in assists (12.80) and kills per set (13.61). The Bruins are led by junior outside hitter Mac May who paces the conference in both kills (4.70) and points (5.29) per set.
As such, the order of the day for the Cardinal will be keying on May and serving tough to force the Bruins off of the net. Mental fortitude will also be key as they are able to extend points.
“We are going to have to do a really nice job on [May],” said Hambly. “They also aren’t afraid to get into rallies and grind out points, like how Utah was. I think Utah was good prep for how UCLA will play us.”
After the reunion match in Pauley Pavilion, the Cardinal-Trojan rivalry is slated for the Sunday matinée. Hambly believes USC may have one of the best outside hitter combinations in the conference with All-Americans Khalia Lanier and Brooke Botkin. Stanford, however, may face a depleted force, as it is unclear whether Botkin, who missed last weekend’s action, will play due to injury.
“They play fast, and they will be a well-rounded team if Botkin is back,” said Hambly. “They are all really athletic, especially Lanier. She’s listed at 6-2 but she plays as big as anybody. They jump high and they’re physical at the net.”
Stanford’s defense will be key to slowing down May, Lanier, and possibly Botkin this weekend. Gates, sophomore middle Holly Campbell and senior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris will all need to dominate the net.
This weekend will likely become historic: senior libero Morgan Hentz is just two balls from reaching 2,000 career digs. She would become just the third player in school history to reach the mark (Gabi Ailes, 2,147 digs, 2007-10; Kyle Gilbert, 2,017 digs, 2011-14).
Of the team’s last six opponents, only Utah is in possession of a winning conference record, and the Utes took the Cardinal to five sets. As such, this weekend will be important as the level of competition begins to ramp back up.
Currently, Stanford and No. 15 Cal sit atop the Pac-12 standings, with both teams at 7-1. The Cardinal left Haas Pavilion with a 3-1 win at the end of September, so they currently own the tiebreaker. At 5-3, the two LA schools are in a four-way tie for fourth place with Utah and No. 24 Washington State.
First serve at UCLA is set for 7:00 p.m. PT on Friday, and Stanford will match up with the Trojans on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. PT.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.