By James Hemker
The Stanford women’s volleyball team will take the court for the first time in 412 days when the team travels to Tucson on Feb. 5 for its season opener against Arizona (0-4, 0-4 Pac-12). Seventh-ranked Stanford is the only school in the Pac-12 that has yet to play this season.
University and county public health restrictions forced the Cardinal to cancel its first four matches of the season: two against USC and an additional pair versus Colorado.
The Cardinal coaching staff and players returned to campus to prepare for this modified, conference-only season just after the new year began. Following a 10-day quarantine period, the team was only allowed to practice outdoors on grass or makeshift plastic courts. Within the last week, practice was moved indoors after Santa Clara County adjusted restrictions that previously banned contact sports; the team will have had only nine days of practice on proper courts before it faces the Wildcats.
With little in-person practice time, the challenge for head coach Kevin Hambly and his coaching staff has been melding the team with the game plan. The base level system is set, but nuanced decisions and adjustments require time to be worked out and taught to the team.
Reliance on previous experience will only carry the Cardinal so far, as the roster lists seven of its 13 members as freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Senior outside hitter Meghan McClure and junior middle Holly Campbell are the only returning starters from the 2019 championship team. The team’s lack of experience means that communication between players will take time to build.
“One week or so is not long enough to feel like you have things put together,” Hambly said. “We have a bunch of new players that are trying to figure out what college volleyball is, and how to handle balls and seams and who takes what.”
What hasn’t changed with the modified schedules and new roster is the end goal: winning the national championship. COVID-19 may have complicated the process and the lack of experience may make the journey more challenging, but the coaching staff believes in its players’ raw talents and abilities to evolve.
Though the roster is young, the team is stacked with talent thanks to high-quality recruiting. Sophomore outside Kendall Kipp, sophomore setter Selina Xu and redshirt freshman outside Catie Baird all ranked in the top five of their recruiting class. Stanford fans may well remember Kipp’s 23-kill game in a five-set thriller against USC last year, and Hambly highlights Baird as a 6-3 outside who can pass and play all the way around the rotation.
Freshman Elena Oglivie will be the Cardinal’s libero, looking to fill the void left by three-time AVCA All-American Morgan Hentz ’20, who left the Farm in second place on the school’s career digs list. Like Hentz, Oglivie is a convert to the position from outside hitter. The learning curve is steep, but the staff has full faith in her abilities.
“Elena was a two-time player of the year in Hawaii and is a really nice volleyball player,” said Hambly.
Hambly declined to name the complete starting roster for Friday’s match against Arizona. With Stanford being the only team that has not faced competition, he cited the mystery as one of the few competitive, strategic advantages the team has.
The Wildcats will certainly be looking for any edges they can find. Arizona has only won two sets on the season between a pair of matches against both Utah and Washington. Arizona was given a tough opening slate, with the Pac-12 preseason coaches’ poll ranking Utah, Washington and Stanford as the top three teams in the conference, in that order. Historically, Stanford has dominated the matchup, owning a 69-7 all-time record.
The coaching staff and players alike are excited and grateful for the opportunity to start their season.
“Honestly, every match feels like a gift because we weren’t sure we would even have a season,” said Hambly. “I think we are all just happy we’re playing.”
First serve in Tucson will be at 5 p.m. PT on Feb. 5 and at 10 a.m. PT on Feb. 7.