There are countless reasons to suggest the third-ranked (and seventh-seeded) Stanford women's volleyball team enjoyed a successful season despite losing to No. 2 Penn State in the Lexington regional final on Saturday in five sets.
The Cardinal (27-6) was a far better team against the Nittany Lions (32-2) than it was in early losses to defending national champion Texas and Florida.
Stanford fell short of the NCAA Final Four, dropping a 22-25, 25-22, 28-26, 18-25, 15-11 match to Penn State. It may have been the goal, though it belies the magnificent journey that led a young team to the brink of playing on the final weekend of the season.
"That was a great match," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "I thought that was a wonderful match we played. We played with our hearts and put everything that we had out on the floor. I know how hard they worked to get here. As a coach, what you want are people who are able to enjoy the things that they worked so hard for and when you get to here and you can't, it's tough."
Senior Rachel Williams ended her career with 17 kills and 12 digs, while fellow senior Carly Wopat added 11 kills, finishing the year with a .429 hitting percentage. The Cardinal also lose senior Mary Ellen Luck, a defensive specialist.
Everyone else is eligible to return, including junior libero Kyle Gilbert, sophomore setter Madi Bugg, sophomore middle blocker Inky Ajanaku and sophomore outside hitters Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard, who form the foundation of a bright tomorrow.
Bugg, with 54 assists, 12 digs and five blocks, and Burgess, who had 17 kills and 18 digs in the match, represented Stanford on the all-tournament team.
"Going into the match, we knew we were going to have to battle the entire time. We knew it was going to be a fight until the end, and I'm glad it turned out that way," said Ajanaku, who had 11 kills and seven blocks and hit .438 on the year. "Although it didn't end up the way that we wanted I am really proud of my team. We fought back when a lot of people thought we were done, and that's just how we play. We were not going to go down without a fight."
In addition to the five returning starters, a freshmen class that ranked as one of the top two or three recruiting classes will also return. Kelsey Humphreys and Merete Lutz, who will likely use a redshirt season, each played with Burgess on the USA junior national team over the summer.
Stanford has not been able to advance past the Elite Eight for five consecutive years, yet each new season brings high expectations and championship dreams. That won't change.