By James Hemker
For the 39th consecutive year, the women’s volleyball team will be competing in the NCAA tournament. Selected as the third-overall seed, the Cardinal will have four rounds of home-court advantage. The first round of the tournament will commence on Friday, with Denver visiting the Farm.
Stanford (24-4, 18-2 Pac-12) enters the tournament on an 11-match win streak through the back half of conference play. With their win over Washington State during Thanksgiving Break, the program earned its third-straight — and 19th overall — Pac-12 title. The Cardinal concluded league play with an 18-2 record, a feat further bolstered by the fact that the Pac-12 was the highest rated conference according to the NCAA’s RPI.
The Pac-12 sent six total teams to the tournament, which tied with the SEC for second-most. The Big Ten sent seven teams, including fourth-seed Wisconsin. Baylor and Texas claimed the top two spots, respectively, for the Big XII.
The Denver Pioneers (23-8, 13-3 Summit) earned an automatic bid after winning the Summit League. This will be their sixth-consecutive tournament appearance, though in that span they are 0-5 without a single set-win. The Pios last came to the Farm in for the first round of the 2016 tournament, where they were handled in an easy 3-0 sweep.
Cal Poly and Georgia will duke it out for the right to play the winner of the Stanford/Denver matchup. Each school received at-large berths to the tournament.
When it comes to the Big Dance, no one has had more success than the Cardinal. Stanford and Penn State are the only two schools in the country that have appeared in every tournament since its inception in 1981. However, with their 10th championship last year, the Cardinal edged out the Nittany Lions — who have won nine — for biggest trophy case.
In terms of the last few years, Stanford is unparalleled. The team has fought their way to the Final Four in each of the last three seasons, winning it all in 2016 and 2018. Most important for this year, those runs have made this season’s roster highly-experienced. The only player on the court without a ring is graduate transfer Madeleine Gates, but even she made it to the Elite Eight while at UCLA.
As the defending champions, the Cardinal will be playing every match with targets on their backs. Additionally, they will have to deal with the constant narrative of trying to achieve back-to-back titles. Head coach Kevin Hambly believes the seniority of the team will allow it to handle with those outside expectations. What he is more concerned about is the pressure the players place on themselves.
“We can’t have the mentality that if we don’t win it was a failure of a season,” Hambly said. “We need to be loose and just try and play our best. But they know that — I think we will be okay.”
First serve for the Cardinal and the Pioneers is set for 7 p.m. PT on Friday. Cal Poly and Georgia will begin earlier at 4:30 p.m. PT.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.