Stanford Women Wins Seventh Volleyball Title, first since 2004

Stanford Women Wins Seventh Volleyball Title, first since 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The sixth-seeded Stanford Cardinal returned to the pinnacle of college volleyball on Saturday night, a dozen years since its last visit, by defeating fourth-seeded Texas in four sets (25-21, 25-19, 18-25, 25-21).

The Cardinal captured the program’s seventh national championship, and first since 2004, and became the first team since the NCAA tournament began in 1981 to win a title with seven regular-season losses. For the Longhorns, they will head back to Austin, Texas, just one win short for the second straight season. This marks the fourth time since 2009 the Longhorns played for a title; they won in 2012.

Leading the way for the Cardinal was middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, the team’s inspirational leader both on and off the court. On a team that starts four freshman, it was the fifth-year senior Ajanaku who rose to the occasion on Saturday. She finished with 16 kills, attacking with an .419 clip, and eight blocks.

Freshman setter Jenna Gray finished with 51 assists, while first-year libero Morgan Hentz added 27 digs. A third freshman, outside hitter Kathryn Plummer, played a huge role, too. She finished with 18 kills on a .325 clip. With the victory, Stanford coach John Dunning has now won five national championships.

The Cardinal controlled the title-clinching fourth set from out-go, scoring the set’s first six points. Texas coach Jerritt Elliott tried to call timeout before it was too late. It turns out, it might already have been. Stanford responded by pushing its lead to 12-4. The Longhorns, a veteran team with exceptional talent and heart, tried to climb out of the eight-point hole. They had some success, trimming it three — 24-21 — after staving off two match points, but it was too little, too late.

A kill from Plummer ended the match and kicked off the celebration. The Cardinal fell to the court in a pile while silver and gold streamers rained down from the rafters.
Texas was led by freshman outside hitter Micaya White, who had 17 kills, and junior outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu, who had 16 kills.

When the game started, Texas looked like it was too much to handle for the young Cardinal. Using two big blocks, the Longhorns raced out to an 8-5 lead. Dunning, one of the games most tested coaches, recognized his team was rattled and called timeout. It proved pivotal.

The Cardinal were able to quell its nerves and piece together a 9-4 run, which forced Texas coach Jerritt Elliott to call a timeout of his own with his team trailing, 14-12. Once again, the strategic timeout proved pivotal, but this time it favored the Longhorns.

With a pair of kills from White and Nwanebu, and two attack errors from Stanford, the Longhorns regained the lead at 18-15.

A kill from Ajanaku, then a big block from freshman setter Jenna Gray, gave Stanford a 20-19 edge, which it would not relinquish from there. The Cardinal closed out the first set with clutch plays from Ajanaku. The senior leader was involved in two double blocks and had two kills. The second of the double blocks, with Ivana Vanjak, gave Stanford the first set, 25-21.

In the second set, the Cardinal looked like it had picked up where it left off in the first set, mounting a 13-8 lead and putting the Longhorns on the ropes. After two quick Longhorns points made it 13-10, Dunning tried to halt Texas’ surge by calling timeout. It didn’t work quite the way he had hoped. Texas, using three kills from White, and one from senior setter Chloe Collins and Nwanebu, stormed back to take a 15-14 lead.

Stanford called timeout, then recovered nicely once play resumed. Audriana Fitzmorris tallied a kill to gave the Cardinal a 19-18 lead, then a Plummer kill made it 20-18. Fitzmorris struck again, increasing Stanford’s lead to 21-18.

Hentz made a world-class dig, and the ball rose nearly to the rafters, then Plummer, on an assist from senior Kelsey Humphreys, tallied a kill to make it 23-18. Texas could only muster one kill from White, before two straight Cardinal points closed out the second set.

But Texas, a team with veteran players and a veteran staff making its second consecutive appearance in the title game, would not go out without a fight. The Longhorns dominated the third set from almost start to finish, except for a small 3-0 run from the Cardinal which made it 21-16.

Elliott called timeout, his team regained its composure and scored four of the next six points to force a fourth set. Nwanebu scored the Longhorns’ last three points in the set.

The Longhorns, however, could not carry that momentum over into the fourth set, as Stanford was too much for them to handle.

The season did not begin the way the Cardinal had hoped for; it took time for the freshmen to get acclimated to the college game, but by the end, it was everything they could have dreamed of achieving.

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Denise J. Saul is the Founder/President of WSEN-Women's Sports & Entertainment Network.

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