Sunday, December 16, 2018

For legendary Stanford volleyball program, there's no time like the present

By Mechelle Voepel
December 16, 2018

Image result for stanford volleyball december 15 2018

(Andy Clayton-King/AP)

MINNEAPOLIS -- The "ghosts" of volleyball greats are always there in the locker room back home, reminders of how incredibly high the bar is set at Stanford. It would be easy for those pictures to just blend into the woodwork, which is why Stanford's Morgan Hentz sometimes reminds herself to really see them.

"We have pictures of every team that's been at Stanford, and on the walls the names of the players," Hentz said. "Sometimes when I'm sitting in the lounge area, I'll get up and look at everyone's pictures. It is quite amazing to see how many great women have gone through the program."

Hentz, a junior, is not done yet, but she and her teammates are already embedded forever in the Stanford volleyball legacy. With their thrilling 3-2 victory Saturday night over Nebraska, the Cardinal became the leader in women's Division I volleyball titles with eight, breaking their tie with Penn State.

They had to work extra hard for this one. For the first time since 2009, and the 10th time overall, the NCAA final went five sets. Nebraska got off to a 9-4 lead in the first set, but Stanford rallied. Then the Huskers saved five set points before falling 28-26. Nebraska prevailed 25-22 in the second set, then Stanford controlled the third 25-16. The Huskers got off to a 5-0 start in the fourth set, extended it to 9-1 and never looked back in winning 25-15.

That set up the pressure-cooker fifth set. Nebraska had more experience with those this season, going 3-2 in five-setters, including its victory over Illinois in Thursday's semifinals. Stanford was 1-1 in its five-setters in the regular season.

But Stanford prevailed 15-12 on Meghan McClure's back-row kill, which Nebraska challenged to no avail.

Kathryn Plummer finished with 19 kills, and Holly Campbell had 15. Nebraska's Mikaela Foecke finished her brilliant career with 27 kills and 11 digs. Plummer and Hentz, who had 32 digs, shared the most outstanding player honor.

"Everyone talks a lot about chemistry, and I think this team has the best chemistry in the country," Hentz said. "It makes you just want to work harder for your teammates every day."

In a sport often defined by momentum shifts in matches, the momentum in winning volleyball championships is back with Stanford, which has taken two of the past three.

There was a lengthy stretch before their 2016 title, though, in which Stanford couldn't break through after winning the 2004 title. In 2006, '07 and '08, the Cardinal fell in the NCAA final. In 2010 and '13, they lost five-set matches in the regional final. In 2014, Stanford lost in the national semifinal to Penn State.

And in 2015, the Cardinal were swept on their home court in the second round by Loyola Marymount, one of the lower points in Stanford volleyball history. But help was on the way. A fantastic recruiting class would change everything in the fall of 2016.

In came outside hitter Plummer, a two-time national player of the year who at 6-foot-6 can -- and frequently does -- dominate matches with her power and precision. And setter Jenna Gray, the leader who so effectively uses all of the Cardinal's weapons. And Audriana Fitzmorris, another 6-6 player who started as a middle blocker but transitioned to a right-side hitter this season and remains important in Stanford's block. And Hentz, the defensive genius who covers the floor like a tarp.

They helped Stanford win the national championship as freshmen, make the final four last year and win another title this year.

Image result for stanford volleyball december 15 2018
Kathryn Plummer (2) directs the ball around the block of Jazz Sweet (Andy Clayton-King/AP)

Could they do it again in 2019? Don't bet against them. But like former players such as Bev Oden, Kristin Folkl, Kerri Walsh, Logan Tom, Ogonna Nnamani and the current junior Cardinal's 2016 teammate Inky Ajanaku, the group is firmly etched in Stanford lore.

"This is one of the great classes we've had," said Denise Corlett, in her 30th season as an assistant coach with the Cardinal. "We knew we had all the pieces with them."

Plummer is a California native. Hentz is from Kentucky, and Gray and Fitzmorris from Kansas. Nebraska coach John Cook said he recruited Hentz, Gray and Fitzmorris but "once a student-athlete has a shot to go to Stanford, it's tough to recruit against that."

Plummer, Gray and Fitzmorris are human biology majors, while Hentz is majoring in psychology. Coach Kevin Hambly didn't bring them to Stanford; he took over there when John Dunning retired after the 2016 championship season. But Hambly definitely appreciates how much this group has meant to the Cardinal.

"They obviously are really bright," Hambly said about his squad, which includes senior starter Tami Alade, who is majoring in human biology who hopes to become a doctor. "You better know what you're bringing to the table if you're going to talk about anything that has to do with science.

"I would also say because of how fast these guys learn things, I had to mix up things and change the way I went about practice. I've tried to come up with as many drills as I can to keep them interested, because they get bored easy."

The transition between Dunning and Hambly went smoothly. The Cardinal lost in the national semifinals last year in five sets to Florida and learned from that.

"When the new staff came in, they did a good job of integrating into the program and connecting to each of us individually," Fitzmorris said. "They showed a lot of trust in us, as well."

This 2018 final four could have been a hometown celebration for Minnesota, but the Gophers were upset in the regional semifinals. It could have ended with a repeat title for Nebraska, playing in its fourth consecutive final four. Or maybe a school like BYU or Illinois could have won the NCAA title for the first time.

But what happened was the team with the target on its back all season claimed the championship at Target Center. Stanford was the preseason No. 1 pick, but a five-set loss at BYU on Aug. 31 dropped the Cardinal from the top spot. They spent most of the season ranked No. 2 behind BYU, then moved back to No. 1 when the Cougars lost their regular-season finale.

But all season long, it felt like Stanford would be the team to beat in the NCAA tournament. No one did. Stanford swept BYU in the semifinals, putting aside that August loss once and for all. Then the Cardinal beat the defending champion Huskers, claiming the title with their 32nd consecutive victory.

"They've been different experiences each year," Fitzmorris said. "We're not trying to recreate the past, but take a different approach each year. Freshman year, we had some of the advantages of not really knowing all that's going on, just that you have to play volleyball.

"Now, as juniors, we've learned from positives and negatives. At the end of the day, it's about just coming out and relying on your teammates the way you have all season."

Fitzmorris finished with 14 kills and five blocks. Gray had 57 assists. Sophomore Meghan McClure, who had the match-winning kill, is thankful to have these juniors to play with.

"They're the core of our team," she said. "They set the tone their freshman year, and I came into that team that had won a national championship. We were set on doing it again last year, and we didn't. But they led us through that, and then they led the way for us to win it this year."

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women's basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

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