By James Hemker
The Los Angeles schools are coming to town — and this time, much more is riding on the matches than petty, in-state rivalries. Three weeks ago, UCLA swept Stanford for the first time since 2015, before any current member of the team was even on the Farm. Two days later, USC nearly made it six-straight losing sets before the Cardinal rallied and pulled off the reverse sweep. With senior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer back on the court for Stanford, the matches this weekend will be a clash of offensive titans.
The Trojans (14-10, 8-6 Pac-12) have one of the best combinations of pin hitters in the conference, between Brooke Botkin and Khalia Lanier. Botkin has been dealing with injuries and has played only a single game out of the team’s last eight, but Lanier has been thriving regardless. She has accounted for 129 of USC’s 248 kills (52%) in the last four games.
Outside Mac May fills a similar role for UCLA (13-10, 8-6 Pac-12). In conference rankings, she comes in just behind Lanier for second in both kills and points per set. Additionally, her 0.34 aces per set pace the Pac-12.
Both schools have had roller coaster seasons, which are, in large part, due to injuries that their rosters have suffered. The Bruins put together a four-match win streak, which included the upset over Stanford, but they have since been derailed, losing three straight. Similarly, USC is 2-3 going back to their loss to the Cardinal.
Thus for No. 4 Stanford (18-4, 12-2 Pac-12), there is a clear opportunity to atone for past mistakes.
“I think we’re looking forward to righting the ship and playing better,” said head coach Kevin Hambly. “Both teams are kind of up and down, but they probably have the leading candidates for Player of the Year in Mac May or Lanier.”
As the adage goes, fight fire with fire, and that is certainly what the Cardinal offense plans to do. Plummer returned to game action against Arizona after missing ten consecutive matches — including the weekend in Los Angeles. When asked if Sunday’s game against the Bruins was a bona fide revenge match, her answer was immediate, “Oh yeah.”
“Watching what happened at UCLA was definitely not fun,” she added. “I wanted to be able to contribute but just couldn’t. Sunday is going to be really fun. They’re a good team, and I’m excited to play them.”
In her absence, the Cardinal rallied and held strong against the brunt of their conference schedule. A product of the team’s immense talent and depth, they posted a 9-1 record. Coming into her senior season, Plummer had played in 102 of 103 possible matches while at Stanford. The absence was mentally straining, in addition to the physical, undisclosed injury.
“I knew that my team, my trainers and my coaches all have my best interests at heart, but it was very frustrating to have to accept that I wouldn’t be playing for a while,” Plummer said. “At the same time I had to keep in mind my future, because I aspire to play professionally.”
After four total serves against Arizona State, she was cleared to play through the front row against the Wildcats. Whenever a player returns from a prolonged absence due to injury, there is always some level of uncertainty as to how they will perform. Whatever expectations people held for Plummer were shattered, as she posted 15 kills on .636 hitting, the second-highest percentage of her collegiate career.
“I was ready to play, and there was just a lot of built-up stuff that I had to get out since I hadn’t played in so long,” she said. “I was very cognizant of what my job was. I had to score points. I just wanted to do well the first time coming back.”
She just wanted to do well, so she posted a stat line that would have been a career night for nearly any other player in the country. There lies the essence of the player who wears No. 2 on her back. There is a reason she’s been picked as the AVCA’s Player of the Year for two years in a row.
She is the perfect combination of physical dominance — which is apparent from her 6’6” frame — and intellectual mastery. Plummer can diagnose the defense and administer an effective antidote in the form of different shot types, speeds and locations.
“She has an incredible volleyball IQ,” Hambly said. “The level at which she understands the game is probably better than a lot of coaches in the country.”
Plummer and the rest of the Cardinal will first host USC on Friday, 6 p.m. PT. The Sunday Neurodiversity match against UCLA is slated for noon.