Sports

Stanford women all set for a title run in NCAA volleyball

 

The Stanford women's volleyball team would like to end its record-setting season with another major accomplishment: the school's seventh NCAA championship.

The journey begins Friday when the top-ranked and top-seeded Cardinal (29-1) hosts Cal State Bakersfield (16-14) at 7 p.m. in the first round of the tournament. A match between Michigan State (18-13) and Loyola Marymount precedes it at 4:30 p.m.

Friday's winners meet Saturday, also at Maples Pavilion, for a berth in the Sweet Sixteen in Ames, Iowa.

The Roadrunners, the WAC tournament champions, are making their first foray into the postseason.

Stanford, which has never lost in the first round of an NCAA tournament, is making its 33rd consecutive appearance.

The Cardinal knows better than to overlook any opponent, a lesson learned the hard way in previous NCAA home matches.

Stanford last won the national title in 2004. The next season, the Cardinal was upset by Santa Clara in the second round at Maples Pavilion. That the Broncos went on to the Final Four was of little solace.

Since its last appearance in the Final Four in 2008, the Cardinal has been eliminated three times by Michigan, and once each by USC and Penn State, in regional play.

Stanford enters the weekend having split its final two regular-season matches, losing to overall No. 3 seed Washington and responding with a victory over Cal, both on the road.

Stanford junior Madi Bugg earned Pac-12 Setter of the Year a second straight season and was joined on the first team all-Pac-12 by juniors Inky Ajanaku and Jordan Burgess and 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman Merete Lutz.

Seniors Morgan Boukather and Kyle Gilbert, and junior Brittany Howard were honorable -mention selections.

The junior class, which also includes Megan McGehee, came to Stanford as one of the most decorated recruiting classes ever. All five players were rated among the top 12 in the nation. As freshmen, they presided over a 22-match winning streak and a Pac-12 championship before running into Michigan.

Last year the Cardinal won 12 in a row at one time, finished second in the conference and gave eventual national champion Penn State its best match of the NCAA tournament.

Stanford celebrated the anniversary of three previous teams during the year, including the 1984 edition, the first Cardinal team to reach the national championship match. Sophomore Kelsey Humphreys knows a little about that team; her mother, Wendi Rush, was one of the top setters in the nation at the time.

The 1994 team won the school's second national title, beating UCLA in the finals after losing to the Bruins in the regular season. Cary Wendell was the National Player of the Year.

The 2004 team featured national Player of the Year Ogonna Nnamani and All-American Kristin Richards. Stanford played its home matches in Burnham Pavilion, while Maples Pavilion was being renovated. An incredible come-from-behind victory over top-ranked Washington helped spark the championship run.

What about this year's record 28-match winning streak; the postseason accolades; the glorious history of the program? Those things hardly matter now when it's a situation where losing means packing it up for the season.

Stanford faces incredible expectations every year, though none could possibly match the expectations the team places on itself. There's only one goal at the end of every season and that is to bring home another title.

"They are very aware they are measured by getting to the Final Four or by winning the national championship," Stanford coach John Dunning said during the season. "To improve every day as a team is my No. 1 goal."

That means working on details, working out snafus and being prepared for whatever may come your way.

"Volleyball is a strategic sport," Dunning said. "What are you going to do if they serve you every ball? Are you going to tough enough or good enough in the moment? Teams have plans to stop Inky and Merete. When they get stopped, we better have a plan."

A diversity of potential points of attack is one way to discourage opponents from focusing on any one thing.

Ajanaku leads the team with 383 kills and a hitting percentage of .446. Lutz is fourth on the team with 256 kills and a .446 hitting percentage. In between, Burgess (342 kills, .262) and Boukather (265, .285) help carry the load. Howard, perhaps the most underrated of the starters, is fifth with 228 kills.

"Brittany is learning from experience and improving rapidly," Dunning said. "Sometimes stats don't tell the whole story. She's become a primary passer and is an effective blocker. She never comes off the court."

In addition to her kills, Howard has 33 assists, 18 service aces and 68 total blocks. More importantly, she receives more attacks (636) than anyone else and successfully handles nearly 96 percent of them.

Burgess, either the No. 1 or No. 2 recruit out of high school depending upon whom you ask, is arguably one of the most versatile, talented players in the nation. Howard could be part of that conversation.

"Our team is crazy. There are so many stars in our program," Burgess said earlier this year. "Brittany and I both find ways to contribute."

Burgess also receives the ball a lot, with a success rate of just over 96 percent on 616 attacks.

Senior libero Kyle Gilbert has a team-best 518 digs to go with a 94 percent success rate on 589 receptions. Freshman Sarah Benjamin is next with 88 receptions, with a percentage of .932.

Ajanaku and Lutz, the middle blockers, are the team's top blockers, but Boukather, Howard and Burgess are also in the mix.

Bugg deserves a category unto herself. Not only does she lead the nation with 12.02 assists per set, but also averages 0.52 blocks a set and 2.90 digs. She's second on the team with 21 service aces (McGehee is first with 29) and averages nearly a kill a set on a hitting percentage of .352.

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