By James Hemker
Three weeks ago, UCLA stunned Stanford in Pauley Pavilion, handing the Cardinal their fourth loss of the season. Hampered by injury in the back row and missing senior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer, the team failed to ever get off the ground in its first straight-sets defeat since 2015.
Sunday afternoon saw fourth-ranked Stanford exact their revenge in terrifying fashion, dominating the Bruins in all aspects of the game. In front of the Maples faithful, the Cardinal out-hit, out-blocked, out-dug and out-served UCLA for three full sets.
The Bruins (14-11, 9-7 Pac-12) are a notoriously grindy team, meaning they dig balls well and force opponents to attack multiple times in a point. Stanford has struggled against similar opponents, as they like to put balls away with one swing. The Cardinal are skilled enough to grind with the best of them, but at times, they have lacked the mental fortitude required to play that type of volleyball.
Fueled by the recent loss, Stanford (20-4, 14-2 Pac-12) needed no help attaining the correct mindset. Plummer, who called this match a reprisal, opened the game with seven kills and just a single error in the first frame. Appearing unaffected by her previous injury, she came at the Bruins hard in all six rotations and finished the outing with 16 kills on .444 hitting.
“The last time we played UCLA, we were trying to not make errors, trying to keep it in,” Plummer said. “With a team like UCLA who digs a lot of balls you can’t play like that. We had to play high and fast, and that’s what we did.”
Recording 38 assists, senior setter Jenna Gray enabled Plummer and the rest of the offense, which hit at a .368 clip, including a stellar .667 second set. UCLA stuffed just five hits the entire game, giving Gray the option of setting whomever she wanted. Five attackers tallied at least five kills.
Junior outside Meghan McClure was the secondary target after Plummer. Slashing 9/1/19, McClure’s .421 hitting percentage was her highest of the season on at least five swings. In the middle, graduate student Madeleine Gates terminated six kills on 12 errorless swings to finish as the most efficient Cardinal.
“We had a good plan about how to isolate some players, and we took advantage of some of their blocking schemes,” said head coach Kevin Hambly of the offense’s success.
UCLA’s goal entering the game was to get star outside hitter Mac May going strong. Second in the conference in both kills and points per set, May’s production would make or break the game for the Bruins.
Knowing this, the Cardinal bigs posted six blocks in the first set alone, setting the tone for the rest of the game. May finished the match with just nine kills. Over the past two seasons the Bruins are 0-10 when she has failed to reach double-digit kills.
Sophomore middle Holly Campbell paced the floor with seven blocks for the second-consecutive match. Senior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris was right behind Campbell with six stuffs of her own. Gates, the team leader with 119 roofs this year, tallied five more against the Bruins. The team totaled 12 blocks, forcing the Bruins to commit 20 attacking errors.
Behind the wall, senior libero Morgan Hentz continued to inch her way closer to history. With 10 more digs in the bag, she needs just 13 more ups to claim the school’s career digs record as her own. For a rare change of pace, it was McClure rather than Hentz who came away with a match-high 14 digs.
Possibly the most impressive performance of the afternoon came from behind the service line. After an atrocious passing game down in Los Angeles, the Cardinal gave the Bruins a taste of their own medicine. UCLA struggled to stay in system as Stanford bombarded their weakest passers.
Stanford handily won the anomalous, highly-offensive second set — which featured eight total digs, zero blocks and both teams hitting over .550 — due to its superb serving. After back-to-back gems in the first frame, junior defensive specialist Kate Formico cooked up three more consecutive aces in the second to put UCLA on the back foot.
Her first three daggers were all aimed at May, who was the clear serving target. Serving at a strong attacker is a common strategy, as it forces them to receive the serve before they can set up for a swing. It also is another task the player has to do, physically wearing away at their endurance. Stanford employed this tactic against May and also in Friday night’s win against Khalia Lanier and USC.
UCLA then forced May out of the passing line, but they failed to correctly align themselves and were called out of rotation. The fifth and final serve fooled libero Kelli Barry, who was Stanford’s Plan B after May.
Formico’s five aces are both a career-best for her and the most by a Stanford player in a single match this year. She now leads the team with 24 on the season. McClure recorded Stanford’s other two aces — both also coming in the second set against Barry — and is in second-place with 21 gems.
“I just wanted to go back there, serve tough, get them out of system and make it easier for the rest of the team,” Formico said.
Tough serving — meaning a ball with pace and movement — makes the opposition pass poorly. The result of a bad pass is that the setter is forced off of the net. This takes the middles out of the equation, and quick sets to the pins are not usually an option. Thus, the options are generally limited to high sets to either pin, giving the defense ample time to react.
“In practice this week we spent a lot of time driving our serves and being aggressive,” Formico said. “To beat UCLA we know we were going to have to serve aggressive and serve them out of system.”
The last matches of the regular season are approaching, and Stanford continues to maintain a two-game lead in the Pac-12 over Washington. In a tough five-day, three-match road-trip, the Cardinal will play Utah, Colorado and Washington State. The Utes and the Cougars are both tied for third currently, just a game behind the Huskies.
In order to claim home-court advantage through Regionals in the NCAA tournament, Stanford will have to be a top-four team nationally. If the team wins out, they should be guaranteed one of those four coveted seats thanks to their insane preseason schedule and tough conference play.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.