By James Hemker
Friday night saw both Stanford and Penn State grind out intense five-set wins to advance to the Elite Eight. It seemed as though Saturday evening would be a heavy-weight collision that would end in yet another fifth-set nail-biter. Instead there was a massacre.
The No. 3 Cardinal had their best offensive performance of the season, sweeping away the No. 11 Nittany Lions in under 90 minutes. After overcoming a six-point deficit in the first set, Stanford never looked back. The Cardinal would finish with a 75% side-out rate, and Penn State’s only other lead would come at 0-1 to start the second set.
Breaking essentially every offensive three-set season-high, Stanford bombarded the opposition during the 25-22, 25-15, 25-17 victory with 57 kills at an unseemly .525 clip. The second frame was the team’s best, featuring 17 errorless kills on 28 attempts.
Thanks to tight passing, senior setter Jenna Gray had the entire offense at her disposal, and she took advantage of it with 47 assists. After getting aced twice in the first four points of the match, the back row found its footing and delivered pass after pass to Gray in the center of the court.
The Penn State middle blocker duo of Serena Gray and Kaitlyn Hord was touted among the strongest in the nation, but Stanford’s own middles emerged nearly perfect. Graduate Madeleine Gates terminated 11 kills on 15 total swings at a career-best .733 clip. The UCLA transfer has been on fire all postseason, racking up 31 kills on 52 errorless swings.
Middle Holly Campbell had an equally stellar night, hitting over .700 as well. She tallied eight kills on 11 swings, also refusing to commit an error. Just a sophomore, Campbell displayed great mental fortitude, posting a statline of that caliber a night after recorded five kills and five errors.
With the middle of the court churning out points for the Cardinal, the pins were almost left to their own devices, as Penn State recorded just a single block the entire match. After posting 29 kills in the five sets against Utah, senior outside Kathryn Plummer put up 24 against the Nittany Lions. Committing just two errors, she hit at a .512 clip, which stands as her career high in a 20+ kill game.
On the other side of the court was senior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris. She earned nine kills on .368 hitting. Showing the versatility of the offense, Fitzmorris — who is the team’s right pin — switched sides with Plummer on multiple points, looking for the most optimal matchups.
To Penn State’s credit, its offense hit .347 as blocks were few and far between for the Cardinal. The team’s 4.5 total stuffs rank as second-lowest all season. The Nittany Lions were lead by outside Tori Gorrell, who smashed 13 kills while hitting .667.
What prevented Penn State from really rolling was the team’s inability to read and pass Stanford’s serves. Gray and junior serving specialist Sidney Wilson paced the floor with two aces a piece, and senior libero Morgan Hentz tacked on another. On three of the aces, the Nittany Lions’ passer misjudged the ball and let it fly past, only for the serve to dip and hit just inside the end line.
Stanford now advances to its fourth consecutive — and 22nd overall — Final Four. Waiting for the Cardinal in Pittsburgh will be Minnesota, who took down Cinderella-team Louisville without issue. This will be the second time this season that the Cardinal face the Golden Gophers after Penn State, and there is a score to settle.
The first time the two teams met was in the middle of September, when Minnesota surprised the then-No. 1 Cardinal with a 3-1 upset. The match marked the first time that the Golden Gophers emerged victorious in 10 total meetings between the teams.
Stanford will have a few days to recover from the eight sets it played in the past two days before the semifinal match on Thursday.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.