Thursday, December 18, 2014

Stanford women’s volleyball team seeks record 7th national title

By Tom Fitzgerald
December 17, 2014
(Photo: Luke Lu)
(Photo: Luke Lu)
Let’s say the mission of your college athletic career is to dive onto an unforgiving wood floor and keep a rocketing volleyball from reaching that floor.
You wear a different jersey than your teammates because there are all kinds of rules limiting what you can do. And you’ve got to handle a little punishment. Basically, you’re a piñata.
Can you do it? Congratulations. You are a libero.
Stanford senior Kyle Gilbert not only accepts that job, she revels in it. She became a defensive specialist when she was 14 on a club team in Southern California and hasn’t dreamed of playing above the net ever since.
“Defense has always been my thing,” she said. “I’d go after balls. I took it on and loved it. You get your scrapes and bruises. Every once in a while, you hit a bone and it knocks the wind out of you. Really, though, it’s pretty safe. It helps if you’re small and low to the ground. I’m 5-7, so I have that going for me.”
Gilbert and the rest of the top-ranked Cardinal (33-1) take on defending national champion Penn State (34-3) in the NCAAsemifinals Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in Oklahoma City. The other semi pits BYU (29-4) against No. 2 Texas (27-2) at 4 p.m. The final is Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
Both Stanford and Penn State are gunning for a record seventh national championship. They played at Maples Pavilion in the third match of the season, with the Cardinal winning in five sets.
The Nittany Lions are in the national semifinals for the seventh time in the past eight years, winning the title in five of them.
On the other hand, the Final Four is a new experience for all the Stanford players.
“We’re super excited,” Gilbert said. “It’s going to be a battle. They have a lot of weapons; we have a lot of weapons. A lot of it is going to come down to serving and passing.”
Stanford’s only loss was at No. 5 Washington three weeks ago. Otherwise, it’s been all gravy.
Two matches stick out to Gilbert. One was a 3-0 sweep of No. 7 Nebraska before more than 8,500 fans in Lincoln. “Everybody was clicking, and Madi (Bugg) did a great job distributing,” she said.
The other was Saturday’s sweep of Florida in the Ames, Iowa, regional final. “It felt like Nebraska all over again,” Gilbert said. “Inky (Ajanaku) went to town. It felt like you couldn’t stop us.”
Gilbert set a school record with 40 digs against Arizona. Her 589 digs this season are the second most in a season by a Stanford player. Gabi Ailes set the record with 617 in 2009.
“She’s had three really good years in a row,” coach John Dunning said. “She started out as a very fearless digger. She’s always been that way. Each year she’s gotten better at the other parts of the game — serving, leading, serve reception, passing. This season, by a lot, is the best she’s played.”
Gilbert received honorable mention on the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s All-America team. Five other Stanford players were honored. Juniors Ajanaku, Bugg and Jordan Burgess were first-team selections, redshirt freshman Merete Lutzwas on the second team, and senior Morgan Boukather received honorable mention. Bugg leads the nation in assists with 12.11 per set.
Tom FitzGerald is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @tomgfitzgerald
NCAA women’s volleyball
Final Four at Oklahoma City
Semifinals: BYU (29-4) vs. No. 2 Texas (27-2), 4 p.m.; No. 5 Penn State (34-3) vs. No. 1 Stanford (33-1), 6:30 p.m.
Final: Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
TV: All matches on ESPN2.

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