While they don't take anything for granted, members of the sixth-ranked Stanford women's volleyball team expect to be playing deep into the NCAA tournament that begins Thursday at Maples Pavilion.
The Cardinal (22-6) faced down adversity to qualify for its 35th consecutive appearance in the NCAAs, something only Stanford and two-time defending national champions Penn State can claim.
Overall No. 8 seed Stanford, third in the Pac-12, meets New Mexico State (28-5) on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The Aggies won the WAC title and bring a 19-match winning streak to Maples Pavilion. The Cardinal has never lost in the first round.
WCC third-place finisher Loyola Marymount (22-8) and Mountain West champion Colorado State (26-3) also play Thursday, at 4:30 p.m. The survivors meet Friday at 7 p.m. for the right to advance into the Sweet Sixteen in San Diego. The regional also includes top-seeded USC.
Seniors Brittany Howard, Madi Bugg and Jordan Burgess create the core of the team, Bugg was named Pac-12 Setter of the Year a third straight season and Howard, a four-time all-conference pick, is enjoying her best season yet.
"We've asked a lot of Brittany," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "She's hitting efficiently and has taken some big swings."
Hayley Hodson, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, has given Stanford another effective weapon, while freshman Halland McKenna, a Pac-12 honorable mention, stepped into the libero position. Redshirt sophomore Merete Lutz, also named all-Pac-12, has been a presence in the middle.
"Given the year we've had, with a rough start, this is where I would seed us," Dunning said. "It's one of those years lots of teams are beating lots of teams."
The Trojans, for example, lost to both Washington, which features Palo Alto's Melanie Wade on the roster, and UCLA. The Huskies, seeded fifth, finished the regular season as the top-ranked team. They lost to USC and Stanford.
There are two teams in the tournament with one loss. Big West champion Hawaii, ranked seventh, dropped an early-season match to the Bruins. Sun Belt champion Arkansas State lost to Missouri.
Of Stanford's six losses, three have been to teams that have won a combined 11 national titles, and five are in the 64-team field. An argument could be made that Colorado, the fifth-place team in the Pac-12, deserved a bid too. The Buffaloes finished ahead of Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon.
The Cardinal is not the only team to sustain injuries this year, though it may have suffered the biggest loss when All-American Inky Ajanaku was injured during the summer while playing with the U.S. national team.
Ajanaku, who will return for her final season, is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate, and an even better teammate.
"Every day we were going through another thing," Dunning said. "We had to rethink everything. We've been tested and we're playing better and better. The three seniors have been through enough and had to fight the whole way. Their collective strength at this time of the year matters."
Ajanaku is so valuable, that the team requested she travel with them throughout the season.
"We asked her, even though she had to rehab and still go to classes," Dunning said. "She's traveled with us and she's been great."
Ajanaku wasn't the only setback. Two weeks before the season opened, Lutz, like Ajanku a middle blocker, hurt a finger and would miss the first week. Enter Ivana Vanjak, who had a crash course at the position and then went out and recorded 13 blocks in her first two matches.
Burgess, a two-time All-America and three-time all-Pac-12 pick, has dealt with a series of setbacks through the year that have affected her statistically. She remains one of the team leaders.
"She's a player," Dunning said. "Physical things have interfered and she's played through them. She knows she can still play her best volleyball. She's somebody you can count on. She's solid and she knows how to compete."
Stanford is 10-5 against the field and that includes wins over four of the top 15 ranked teams, including the top-ranked Huskies, fourth-ranked and No. 2 overall seed Minnesota, No. 12 UCLA and No. 15 Texas A&M.
It's time for Stanford to shine and the Cardinal knows how to turn on the switch.