By King Jemison
Entering the third set of Sunday’s road match at USC (12-8, 6-4 Pac-12), No. 2 Stanford women’s volleyball (14-4, 8-2 Pac-12) was reeling. The Cardinal had dropped five straight sets for the first time since September 2015. They were missing two-time National Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer for the eighth straight match. But with their season seemingly on the line, Stanford pulled off the reverse sweep, rattling off three straight sets to claim a massive 3-2 win over the Trojans behind 23 kills from freshman outside hitter Kendall Kipp and 27 digs from senior libero Morgan Hentz. The two-time All-American libero is now second all-time in career digs (2,037) at Stanford after her masterful performance on Sunday.
“We were tough and we grinded,” head coach Kevin Hambly said after the win. “USC was comfortable and they were scoring. We had to really scrap to find ways to make them uncomfortable. I’m really proud of how hard a fight that was, especially coming off that loss from UCLA where we’re not feeling great about things. So to feel great about a comeback like that, I think it’s big.”
Hambly’s team absolutely out-scrapped their opponents on the road, as Stanford had 90 digs to just 68 for USC. The magnificent comeback against USC came two days after Stanford was shockingly swept by UCLA. The Bruins came into the game unranked but handed the Cardinal their worst loss since December 2015. As Hambly mentioned, Stanford desperately needed this win to get their season back on track. After two lackluster set losses, the Cardinal found the spark they needed in 6’5” phenom Kipp.
Kipp’s 23 kills blasted past her previous career high of 16. The freshman was remarkably efficient, accruing a .378 hitting percentage. When Stanford needed it most in the fifth set, Kipp was at her best, registering six kills in the final period to carry her team to victory. The freshman has taken on a bigger offensive role in Plummer’s absence, and she has proven up to the task.
Kipp gave all the credit to her teammates for her performance, complimenting the play of the Stanford serve-receive unit and the “relentless defense” that kept USC from scoring at ease as they had in the first two sets. But her takeover in the fourth and fifth sets signaled that the freshman is learning to use her tremendous athleticism to thoroughly dominate opposing defenses. She is also learning to trust her teammates so that she can swing away.
“We were covering amazing, so I really had the confidence to just go up and swing and knew that if I got blocked, my teammates would be there to cover,” Kipp said after the match.
“We’ve seen glimpses of this,” Hambly commented on Kipp’s performance. “It was nice to see her play a whole match like this. To have her play five sets the way she did, I think is great for her confidence and hopefully moving forward.”
As Kipp mentioned, however, she never would have gotten the opportunity to take over the match if the Stanford back row had not provided one of its finest games of the season. Sunday’s win over USC was a vintage Morgan Hentz performance. The two-time Pac-12 libero of the year flew all around the court en route to a season-high 27 digs, and she also played a major part in Stanford’s much-improved serve-receive consistency. Hentz passed Kyle Gilbert (2011-14) early in the match for second all-time in career digs at Stanford. Now at 2,037 for her four-year stint on the Farm, Hentz needs just 111 more to pass Gabi Ailes (2007-10) for the most all-time. If her career ended today, Hentz would also hold the Stanford record for career digs per set at 4.67.
Hentz was not the only Stanford player with a phenomenal defensive performance. Junior defensive specialist Kate Formico tied her career high with 16 digs. Senior setter Jenna Gray also matched her career high with 15 digs and captained the efficient offensive performance with 58 assists. Junior outside hitter Meghan McClure added 12 digs and nine kills, including the final two kills of the game for Stanford.
“We were definitely more committed to playing defense,” Hambly said of his team’s back row effort. “I think against UCLA we were kind of trying to sort through it. We weren’t the aggressor on the block, on the serve or in the backcourt. Tonight, we knew we had to, and they did a nice job of scrapping.”
Stanford also did a much better job of turning those digs into kills against USC. Senior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris registered 14 kills on .324 to form a strong one-two punch with Kipp. Graduate student middle blocker Madeleine Gates added 13 kills to set her season high. Gray, in addition to tying her career high in digs, also set her career high with seven kills using her deadly dump. Sophomore middle blocker Holly Campbell had a big game as well, putting down eight kills and eight blocks. As a team, Stanford hit .286 while holding the Trojans to a .124 efficiency.
The Cardinal needed every one of those kills because USC played incredibly tough at home. Senior outside hitter Khalia Lanier led the Trojans with 20 kills and 12 digs. Freshman outside hitter Kalen Owes chipped in 19 kills, and sophomore setter Raquel Lázaro keyed the USC attack with 49 assists and a team-high 16 digs. The Trojans added seven aces as a team, including three from senior middle blocker Jasmine Gross.
USC won the first two sets 25-23 and 28-26, fighting off three Cardinal set points to prevail in the second. Stanford staved off defeat with a 25-19 win in the third set before ratcheting up the service pressure in the fourth to win by a dominant 25-14 margin. Stanford trailed 6-7 early in the fifth set but proceeded to go on an all-important 4-0 run that gave Hambly’s team all the cushion they needed. USC fought off one match point before McClure ended the match with an out-of-system kill.
Stanford’s comeback victory keeps the Cardinal hopes of a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament alive. It also vaulted Stanford to the top of the Pac-12 standings after Cal lost to UCLA 3-1 right across town. Considering the Cardinal were swept by UCLA on Friday and dropped the first two sets to USC on Sunday, it looked like the Los Angeles trip might totally derail Stanford’s season. But after the dramatic reverse sweep of the Trojans, the Cardinal will fight on even without two-time National Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer.