By James Hemker
Senior setter Jenna Gray moved into second place in program history for career assists as the fourth-ranked Cardinal trounced USC in four sets. The 25-12, 25-17, 22-25, 25-20 match was the result of extremely tough defensive play, which held the Women of Troy (14-11, 8-7 Pac-12) to their second-worst offensive match of the season (.142 hitting percentage).
Stanford’s four-year field general continued her rise through the record books near the end of the first set when graduate middle Madeleine Gates put away the historic 5,015th assist. The two-time Pac-12 Setter of the Year had entered the season ranked sixth with 4,091 assists. The record further cements an already legendary legacy that includes two NCAA titles and three All-America honors.
“Just hearing that is hard to believe,” said Gray of her new record. “I came to Stanford not expecting to see a lot of playing time, let alone becoming second all-time. I’m really grateful to all of my teammates who have helped me get to this point.”
Bryn Kehoe (2004-07) holds the school’s career record at 5,956.
Gray finished the night with 39 assists, and the team hit at a .284 clip. The setter called her own number multiple times, finishing with five kills on seven errorless attempts. The Cardinal offense started red hot, hitting .464 in the opening frame. Senior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer opened up with six kills on nine swings in the first. However, playing all six rotations fatigued the star, who finished with 17 kills. Combined with the fact that the Trojans’ serving improved, the offense began to falter into the third and fourth sets.
“She struggled in the third and I could tell she was running out of gas, so I pulled her in the fourth,” said head coach Kevin Hambly. “We just have to work her back into shape.”
Gates and junior outside hitter Meghan McClure did their best to keep the ship on an even keel. McClure had a nine-kill night with just a single error to hit .297, including three straight points for the Cardinal in the third. Working the slide hard, Gates turned in 11 kills at an excellent .429 clip.
“I’ve been working on making sure my approach is slow to fast instead of the same speed,” Gates said. “That leads to being more explosive.”
Stanford (19-4, 13-2 Pac-12) tied their season-high of 16 blocks and kept the Trojans’ key pin hitters in check. Khalia Lanier, the reigning AVCA Player of the Week, was held in the negatives through the first two sets. Though she paced the court with 19 kills, it was achieved at just a .164 clip, her third worst outing of the season. Kalen Owes, who posted 19 kills in the two schools’ last meeting, ended her night hitting -.033.
The blocking defense was a true team effort on Friday night, with the Cardinal pulling out the triple-block multiple times to dampen the USC pins. Gates and sophomore middle Holly Campbell paced all players with seven blocks a piece. Senior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris put her hand in six more. Three additional players came away with at least three stuffs.
“Blocking Khalia Lanier was definitely a big part,” Gates said of the defensive gameplan. “We worked hard on triple-blocking this week so that we could use that against her.”
“They set such a high ball, and their outsides are so good,” Hambly said. “Lanier, especially, is good out of the back row, so we wanted to make sure we got the triple.”
The Cardinal served hard throughout the entire match, further complicating USC’s offensive goals. Three of Stanford’s four final points in the fourth were products of the serve, starting with McClure acing Lanier, who was singled out throughout the match. Junior serving specialist Sidney Wilson’s second ace of the night brought match point. A second tough ball forced Lanier to overpass, giving Gray the easy kill for point-set-match.
“Sidney has always served really well,” Hambly said. “She’s done this every match she’s played. She goes back there, serves aggressively and scores points for us. Now that Kathryn is back in for six rotations, we can starting subbing [Sidney] in more often.”
As if the block and serve weren’t enough, senior libero Morgan Hentz patrolled the back row with 21 digs. In addition to her defensive performance, Hentz was just a single assist short of a double-double. With 12 digs, Gray was able to reach the coveted stat-line, marking her ninth double-double of the season.
On top of being the queen of the back court, Hentz is also the emotional leader of the team. Early in the fourth set, the Trojans amassed a 5-0 run, which forced a Stanford timeout. Though Hambly called time, Hentz did the talking and fired up her teammates. The Cardinal returned to the floor and knotted the game with a 5-2 run. The melancholy from losing the third set was erased, and Stanford took the win.
“Morgan is really good at it,” Gray said. “Not a lot of times do you see defensive player that can get you fired up. She scraps and pushes every point, so she definitely got on us to play better.”
Hentz is the next member of this studded senior class who is closing in on a milestone. With 2,125 digs under her belt, 23 more ups will catapult the Kentucky native to the top of the school’s career digs list (Gabi Ailes, 2007-10; 2,147).
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.