By James Hemker
Thursday marks the beginning of the final leg of the volleyball team’s journey this year. The Cardinal will be competing in their fourth-straight Final Four match with the ultimate goal of securing their third national title in four years.
Thus far, the bracket has been fairly predictable, with only a couple major upsets. Three of the top-four seeds are still in contention. In a “perfect” world, third-seeded Stanford would have played the two seed. Since Texas exited in the round of 16, the Cardinal will face No. 7 Minnesota instead. The other side of the bracket contains the chalk matchup of top-ranked Baylor and No. 4 Wisconsin.
This semifinal meeting will mark the 11th time that the Cardinal and the Golden Gophers have squared off against each other. The first nine meetings all went Stanford’s way, but the matchup at the beginning of this season saw Minnesota snap Stanford’s 37-match win streak.
Hitting a season-high 29 errors, the Cardinal offense never got off the ground. On the flipside, the Gophers ran a fast attack that allowed them to sneak two 27-25 set wins enroute to their 3-1 victory.
“They have so many different weapons, and they run it really fast,” said senior setter Jenna Gray. “They’re just overall a really, really great team, and they made us work to earn our points”
Minnesota’s weapons come in the form of four 2019 All-Americans. Middle Regan Pittman earned First Team honors, and opposite Stephanie Samedy was named to the Second Team. Outside Alexis Hart garnered a third team nod, and libero CC McGraw got an honorable mention.
Still, history has shown an early season-loss is a low-quality predictor for postseason outcomes. Last year, the Cardinal suffered their only loss to BYU in the third game of the season. Stanford then swept the Cougars in the semifinals on the path to its unprecedented eighth national championship.
Amid their dogged pursuit of the program’s ninth title, multiple members of the Cardinal roster were also selected this week for individual awards. Four AVCA All-America selections headlined the honors. Gray and senior libero Morgan Hentz were both named to the First Team for the third consecutive year. Graduate middle Madeleine Gates and senior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris each garnered Third Team selections.
Gray was also named as one of four finalists for the prestigious Honda Sport Award for Volleyball. Twelve awards are given to the top female athlete in 12 different sports. She joins Baylor’s Yossiana Pressley, Wisconsin’s Dana Rettke and Cincinnati’s Jordan Thompson. The nominees are selected by the AVCA, and the final award is determined by voting from all members of the NCAA.
Notably absent from both lists is senior outside Kathryn Plummer, who did not qualify as she did not play in two-thirds of the teams’ sets due to injury. Plummer was still recognized as the 2019 winner of the Senior CLASS Award. An acronym for Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School, the award encourages students to use their platform in athletics to make a positive impact as leaders in their communities.
Junior outside hitter Meghan McClure received the NCAA’s Elite 90 award. It recognizes the person who has reached the apex of competition in their sport while maintaining the highest academic standard. Each year, the student with the highest GPA participating in the Final Four wins the award. McClure, a science, technology and society major, carries a 3.965 GPA.
At the conference level, Hentz was named the sport’s 2019 Pac-12 Scholar Athlete of the Year. The psychology major is the fourth Stanford women’s volleyball player to receive the award. She is the school’s second recipient in 2019 after Steven Fahy won it for men’s cross country earlier in the fall.
The awards and honors serve as sweet reminders of the hard work that the members of this team have put in over the course of the season. However, they remain steadfast in their ultimate goal, and that means dealing with Minnesota on Thursday.
First serve from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA, is slated for 6:30 p.m. PT.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.