All year long, Stanford women's volleyball coach John Dunning has suggested the team really didn't know how good it could be.
On a Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio, the ninth-ranked Cardinal left behind an important clue.
“They're pretty special,” Dunning said after watching Stanford (27-7) defeat Texas, 25-21, 25-19, 18-25, 25-21, to win its first NCAA championship since 2004, and its seventh overall.
“Man, I'm excited. I've been wanting this for a long time,” Cardinal fifth-year senior Inky Ajanaku said. “It's not exactly the way I thought it was going to be, but that's life.”
Ajanaku missed out on her academic senior year due to a knee injury sustained while playing for the U.S. senior national team during the previous summer. She was on the sidelines when her recruiting class fell in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament.
“You're going to face adversity and it's a matter of how you deal with it,” said Ajanaku, who took the opportunity to give her former teammates a shout-out. “John is one of those people who will continue to look you in the eye and say 'I will never give up on you.' He had a great vision of what this year could be.”
That vision included Ajanaku becoming more of a leader for a team that was going to be young, very young. Kelsey Humphreys, who set the championship match, was the only other senior on the roster. Even next year's roster will include just two seniors.
Ajanaku, though, wasn't quite ready to assume an enhanced leadership role.
“The mental side of coming back was way scarier than the physical side,” Ajanaku said. “I was coming back to a different type of team and I felt uncomfortable. A lot of people believed in me when I wasn't able to believe in myself.”
Even as Ajanaku battled through rehabilitation and doubt, she was never less than absolutely positive regarding her teammates.
“She's one of the strongest individuals I've ever had the pleasure of playing with,” Humphreys said. “She let us believe in ourselves.”
Humphreys, the daughter of Wendy Rush, a four-time all-American setter at Stanford, had a rocky career herself. She was asked to change positions in the middle of her senior year when it became clear freshman Jenna Gray could handle the setting spot.
“I had a decision to make and when I turned to my teammates I realized what we've been working for,” Humphreys said. “It was so much bigger than one individual, one position. We have been working hard for each other.”
Humphreys, who recorded 17 digs during the semifinal victory over Minnesota, set an out-of-system ball that Kathryn Plummer, the national Freshman of the Year, turned into the championship point.
“It was an awesome way to end it,” Plummer said. “To end it that way was relevant to how we should finish that match.”
In other words, Stanford survived a season of frustrations that included nearly every player learning a new position, more home losses in a year than at any time in program history and what could have been a devastating injury. Last year's national Freshman of the Year and the nation's top recruit Hayley Hodson was lost for the season.
When the Cardinal lost Hodson's replacement, freshman Michaela Keefe, Morgan Hentz was the first to volunteer.
“If Morgan would have gotten hurt there, people would have killed me,” Dunn said. “So I asked Kathryn. Her knowledge and adaptability allowed her to make the change. The first time I saw Kathryn play was when she was 14 and she was setting and playing opposite. She has great hands and could be a huge international blocking setter.”
Keeping Hentz at libero, where she turned McKenna Halland into a defensive specialist, may have been the season's best non-decision.
Stanford's first NCAA volleyball title arrived in 1992, the 12th year of NCAA sponsorship of the sport. The latest title comes after a 12-year drought. The Cardinal was the national runner-up three times before finally winning a title. The Cardinal was also a three-time national runner-up between titles.
The Cardinal's 27 wins matched the fewest number of wins by the NCAA champion, with USC in 1981.
(Here's the complete replay as provided by Netlemming.