By James Hemker
Senior outside Kathryn Plummer had more than double anyone else’s kills. The Cardinal serve was aggressive and highly effective. The defense held Denver to its second-worst offensive outing of the season.
It was a textbook Stanford win, and it came in the opening round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. In just over an hour, the defending champion Cardinal sent the Pioneers packing with a three-set sweep.
Despite being the overwhelming favorites for the match, No. 3 Stanford came out with the jitters. The 25-20, 25-11, 25-15 scoreline showed some evidence that it took the team a little while to work through their nerves.
“The first match is always the most anxious one,” said head coach Kevin Hambly. “It feels like a new season”
“It might not be the hardest match, but it’s a really difficult match mentally,” added junior outside Meghan McClure. “I think people were on edge — the win-or-go-home aspect stresses everyone.”
After a relatively slow start to the match, the offense found its groove and settled into a .356 hitting percentage for the night. Senior setter Jenna Gray recorded just 30 assists, her second-lowest figure this season.
The first set featured two Cardinal in the negatives, but they were buoyed by Plummer, who concluded that opening frame with seven kills on ten errorless swings. Only one other player, senior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris, would even reach seven kills by the end of the match.
With the second frame, Stanford’s offense was able to pull itself together, and the team put away 16 kills on .467 hitting. Plummer’s volume decreased, as she terminated 10 more balls in the final two-thirds of the game.
Even though those 17 kills came at a .433 clip, her most impressive performance came at the endline. She aced the Pioneers five times, including three-in-a-row at the end of the dominant second set. The team’s serving was relentless, putting even more pressure on Denver than the Cardinal’s seven aces would suggest.
From the get-go, the Pioneers’ passers were on the back foot. Junior serving specialist Sidney Wilson opened every set for the Cardinal, and her efforts ensured that Denver would not hold its first lead of the game until the 11 points into the third set. When she was back at the line, the Pioneers sided-out just 36% of the time.
“We really liked the matchup,” said Hambly about starting with Wilson. “Every match she plays she goes back there, serves aggressively and scores points for us.”
Early into the third, Denver responded with tough serving of their own, and forced the Cardinal into a rut. Consecutive aces highlighted a 6-0 run for the Pioneers. Hambly called his only timeout of the game, which set the team back on track. A 5-0 run knotted the third, and then the Cardinal ran away with the frame and the match.
“We just needed to refocus on getting our first contact and slowings things down,” said McClure. “We then got right back into the rhythm of things.”
Denver’s offensive woes stemmed from their inability to pass, and they were then exacerbated by the Cardinal defense. Despite taking 25 more swings than Stanford, the Pioneers recorded 11 fewer kills while hitting .062. They were held in the negatives during the final set.
Fitzmorris paced the floor with six blocks, while the middles — graduate transfer Madeleine Gates and sophomore Holly Campbell — each added four more. The team recorded nine in total versus Denver’s five.
Friday night marked the sixth time this year that Stanford (52 digs) recorded at least 50 digs during a sweep. McClure upped a match-high 14 while senior libero Morgan Hentz contributed 12 more.
Earlier this week, Hentz and Gray achieved their own personal three-peats with the announcements of the conference awards. For the third consecutive year, the duo were named Pac-12 Libero of the Year and Setter of the Year, respectively. They additionally were named to the All-Pac-12 team along with Fitzmorris and Gates. McClure garnered an honorable mention.
Showered in conference awards, the Cardinal are now one step closer to getting the national hardware. The road continues tomorrow night against Cal Poly, which is setting up to be a dogfight. After falling 0-2, the Mustangs reverse-swept Georgia in five on Friday afternoon.
“They’ll bring a lot of energy,” said Fitzmorris. “But at the end of the day, especially in these matches, our biggest focus is on our side of the court and getting into our rhythm.”
First serve is set for 6 p.m. from Maples.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.