A nemesis exists for a reason. Mainly, to torment.
For the past decade, Penn State is the epitome of agony when it comes to Stanford women's volleyball. The Nittany Lions have won five national championships during that span, while the Cardinal is still stuck at six -- an NCAA record shared with its adversary.
Stanford hasn't raised the trophy since 2004, and that won't change this season after the No. 1 Cardinal was eliminated Thursday night in four sets from the NCAA tournament by none other than No. 5 Penn State.
Last year the Nttany Lions knocked out Stanford in the regional finals. This was even more painful, as it took place in the final four.
"I would like to congratulate Penn State," Stanford coach John Dunning said in his opening statement at the postgame press conference. "And I would like to say I've said that too many times. I'm actually tired of it. But no one should feel sorry for us."
Penn State (35-3), the defending national champion, earned a date in Saturday's final against unseeded BYU after winning 25-16, 23-25, 25-22, 25-21 in front of 9,824 fans at Chesapeake Arena, home of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder.
It was only the sixth time Stanford (33-2) dropped the opening set. The first time? In the third match of the season against Penn State.
The Cardinal bounced back at home in Maples Pavilion to win a five-set marathon.
But this opening set had an ominous feel to it, particularly after Penn State hit at a ridiculous .471 clip with just one attack error.
"I think we let things get away from us in Game 1," Dunning said. "And it kind of changed some things, way the rest of the match went."
The Cardinal's .207 hitting efficiency for the match was its lowest hitting clip of the season.
First-team All-America middle blocker Inky Ajanaku had almost as many kills as errors (9 to 7) and was limited to a .091 hitting percentage.
Stanford setter Madi Bugg, a fellow junior and first-team All-American, was scurrying around the court as the Cardinal struggled with its serve receive. And whenever Bugg tried to force the issue, her aggressiveness backfired as the alert Nittany Lions forced three errors on 11 swings, resulting in a minus-.091 hitting percentage.
"There's a big tradition of Penn State-Stanford, and it goes way back further than any of us have played," said Penn State's Megan Courtney, who set a career high with 23 kills. "Coach has really instilled in us the tradition. It's a grind. Stanford is a great team. They're the No. 1 team in the country. Well deserved. The game we played earlier, we fought. It was a five-game set. It was a thriller that could go either way until that fifth set.
"Tonight it was just about the 20 girls on the team, the coaching staff, against the world, and that's what we took it as and that's what we did."
Stanford never found its rhythm on the big stage.
Up 21-14 in Game 2, what seemed like a given turned into a fight for survival on life support after a six-point run by Penn State forced Dunning to burn both of his timeouts.
A swing by outside hitter Brittany Howard, a junior out of Mountain View High who led Stanford with 13 kills, mercifully stopped the bleeding. The Nittany Lions pulled even at 22-all before the Cardinal made it 24-22 on back-to-back kills by middle blocker Merete Lutz (second-team All-America) and outside hitter Jordan Burgess (first-team All-America) -- both of whom finished with 10 kills.
Lutz had five kills with no errors in the second set. Burgess converted the second set point, yet what should have been a confidence booster felt more like a sigh of relief.
Stanford battled the rest of the way, trailing 22-21 in both Game 3 and 4. Stanford led 11-7 early in the fourth set, but Penn State rallied to win its 19th consecutive match.
The Cardinal's heralded group of juniors -- Ajanaku, Bugg, Burgess and Howard -- which had to wait three years for their first trip to the final four, now only has one more shot to end Stanford's decade-long championship drought.
Not to mention Penn State's stranglehold.
"When you're playing here, I mean, you're trying to be the best team in the country in this moment, which is really, really hard to do, and we came close," Dunning said. "And they will learn from it, because that's the kind of group it is, and we will have a chance to be better next year because of it.
"And I think they'll walk away holding their head high and be proud of their effort."
  • Howard added nine digs and three blocks.
  • Defensively, senior libero Kyle Gilbert finished with 18 digs, including the 2,000th of her career, joining Gabi Ailes (2007-10) as the only players with that many in school history.
  • Bugg ran the offense, collecting 47 assists and 11 digs for her 15th double-double of the year.
  • Inky Ajanaku totaled nine kills and three blocks, while senior opposite Morgan Boukather chipped in with eight kills and 12 digs.
  • Megan Courtney had 23 kills, Micha Hancock had 55 set assists and Ali Frantti had 16 kills for the Nittany Lions.
  • Stanford's 33 wins ties a program record. The Cardinal won 28 consecutive matches to start the season, which also is a school record.
  • BYU (30-4) beat Texas 25-23, 25-16, 17-25, 26-24 in the early match to become just the third unseeded team to reach the finals since the first tournament in 1981.
    Email Vytas Mazeika at vmazeika@dailynewsgroup.com; follow him at Twitter.com/dailynewsvytas.