By James Hemker
In a game as fast as volleyball, muscle memory and team chemistry are just as important as raw talent or game knowledge. Still without a consistent roster, the Stanford women’s volleyball team struggled to keep pace with No. 9 Utah (10-2, 10-2 Pac-12) this weekend, dropping both matches in four sets.
Juggling COVID-19 issues and injuries, the Cardinal (1-5, 1-5 Pac-12) started different lineups in each match. Redshirt freshman outside Caitie Baird was unable to play Friday, while freshman middle Annabelle Smith could not compete on Sunday. For the second match, sophomore pin hitter Kendall Kipp moved to the middle, and senior Mackenzie Fidelak took over at opposite.
The revolving door in the roster and multiple weeks of canceled matches have made it hard for Stanford to build on any sort of consistent base at both the season level and game level. Despite the Friday night loss, Stanford took to the Sunday matinee quickly, surprising Utah out of the gate and earning a decisive 25-16 set win. However, that first frame would prove to be their only successful one.
“It was kind of a fool’s gold set,” said head coach Kevin Hambly. “We had only eight kills and they made some errors, so when they steadied out as the match went on, we couldn’t hold.”
One of the main issues, as Hambly highlighted, was the offense’s inability to generate points. Despite an excellent passing game, Stanford was unable to get past Utah’s formidable defense. The Cardinal hit just .132 as a team, with only one player above .122.
Sophomore middle McKenna Vicini was able to find some space in the middle, terminating seven kills at a .316 clip. Baird paced the team with 13 kills, though they came at the price of nine errors. Senior outside Meghan McClure and Kipp, in the middle, each tallied eight kills.
In an effort to jumpstart the offense, Hambly switched the team out of its normal 5-1 offense to a 6-2 offense in the fourth set. In the 6-2, setters only play through the back row, requiring a team to have two capable setters. In exchange, there are always three hitters in the front row. Fidelak played as the second setter, and sophomore Natalie Berty took over at opposite. Though Stanford had its second-best offensive set in the fourth, hitting .200, the Utes hit .333 in the frame and closed the match without issue.
The defense, especially the blocking, was one of Stanford’s bright spots during the match. Vicini paced the floor, putting her hand in eight of the Cardinal’s 11 total blocks. Though the Cardinal defense was able to hold Utah to hitting just .153 on the night, the Utes had the volume advantage in kills, 54 to 40.
Stanford has a tough remaining schedule for the season, playing against three top-20 teams. First up will be No. 20 Oregon next weekend in Maples Pavilion.