Widgets Magazine

Depth is key again as Cardinal advance to NCAA regional

The NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Stanford’s women’s volleyball team was tested, but held off Michigan State (19-14) in its second round matchup for a tough four-set win: 25-20, 25-22, 24-26, 25-23. The Cardinal (31-1) clinched a spot in the regional for the 12th time in head coach John Dunning’s 14 seasons at the helm of the program.

Jordan Burgess (23), Women's volleyball v. ASU (Frank Chen)

Junior Jordan Burgess closed out the Card’s second round NCAA match with the two final kills of the fourth set, sending the Cardinal to Ames, Iowa for the Sweet 16matchup with Oregon State. (FRANK CHEN/The Stanford Daily)

“This time of year is just awesome. I’ve been coaching long enough that I have feelings about the whole year, but I love this time of year and I think this team does too. We’re very excited,” Dunning said. “Obviously, Michigan State is very good. They are tested every week in their conference like we are; they came ready to play. They’re one of the teams that I had heard was just getting better as they went through the season.”

Coming off their first round match against CSU Bakersfield in which they hit a season-low .200 as a team, the Cardinal offense rebounded in a big way, looking a lot sharper from the start of the first set. As has been the story for the entire season, Stanford capitalized on its depth, with four different players tallying double-digit kills in the match: junior outside hitters Jordan Burgess (15) and Brittany Howard (12), and middle blockers Inky Ajanaku (13) and Merete Lutz (10).

“We have to congratulate our passers…That allows [junior setter Madi Bugg] to do what Madi does, and she’s more experienced at it now than ever,” Dunning said. “Having the ability to choose amongst five hitters who all have been hot at different times of the year, and have four of them hit the way they did tonight — if you have the weapons that we have, you have a chance against anyone.”

Bugg finished with 53 assists in the match, just six shy of her season-high, which she set against Oregon State earlier this season. Lutz and Ajanaku, who ranked fourth and fifth in hitting percentage in the nation entering the postseason, were efficient on Saturday night as well, hitting .450 and .458 respectively. Lutz also had a team-high five blocks in the match, while Ajanaku also tallied four.

Burgess, who had a match-high 15 kills and 18 digs, also notched a career milestone against the Spartans. In the middle of the deciding fourth set, in which she had seven kills including the final two of the match after the score was knotted at 23, she tallied her 1,000th career kill. Burgess is just the ninth player in program history to have both 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs, another milestone she reached earlier this season.

“I’ve been lucky enough to play all three years that I’ve been here, that’s a big part of it,” Burgess said. “But also, Madi does a really good job setting me and we have a really good relationship on and off the court, so that helps things.”

Stanford was able to win the first two sets by tight margins, taking advantage of key Michigan State errors that had them hitting just .120 at the break, yet also making the big play when needed. The Spartans’ had their first lead in a set after coming back from an 11-8 deficit with four straight points, including two service aces by their senior libero Kori Moster. Yet Stanford battled back thanks to key contributions from their middles, who combined for eight of the team’s 13 kills in the second set. The Cardinal took an 18-16 lead, and held on to win the set, 25-22.

The Spartans came out strong after the break, jumping out to a 6-1 lead with their leader in kills, sophomore outside hitter Chloe Reinig having a big impact early on. They had a seven-point lead as late as 15-8 in the set, with everything clicking for Michigan State and with Stanford’s offense out of sync. Yet with the home crowd seemingly expecting a revival, the Cardinal went on to win nine of the next 11 points, tying the game at 17 on a solo block by Ajanaku. Emphatic fist pumps and shouts of “let’s go” from the Stanford middles after crucial blocks kept the momentum from swinging completely in the Spartans’ favor. Michigan State, however, kept the set close, and with the score knotted at 24, got a kill from Reinig and a service ace to extend the match.

“I always expect our team to make the hard comeback. We’ve done it a lot of times throughout this season, and that faith in each other is really important,” Ajanaku said. “We almost got that third set, I wish we did. But it was great to see our team come back and respond in that way.”

The fourth set was tight throughout, with the Cardinal maintaining a small lead most of the way. Stanford took an 18-15 lead after an impressive kill by Bugg, catching the Michigan State defense off guard with a tip to the back corner, prompting a timeout from head coach Cathy George. The Spartans battled back and tied the score as late as 23-23, just two points away from forcing a winner-takes-all fifth set. Burgess had other ideas, as she had a kill to give the Cardinal a 24-23 lead, and then after a huge one-armed dig by libero Kyle Gilbert on her serve on match point, notched the final kill of the match.

The Cardinal now advance to the Ames [Iowa] regional, where they will face familiar conference foe, Oregon State, who defeated Creighton and Arkansas, Little Rock in the first two rounds of the tournament. No. 9 seeded Illinois, who the Cardinal defeated in five sets in September, and SEC champion, No. 8 seeded Florida round out the regional.

“Both times we’ve played [Oregon State], they played very well. They have a lot of different weapons on offense and they have a really great defense,” Ajanaku said. “I’m glad that we’ve played them before and we know what we’re facing, we just need to execute our game plan, and I think we’ll be in a good spot.”

First serve from the Hilton Coliseum in Ames between the Cardinal and Beavers is set for 3 p.m. PT on Friday. The match will be streamed live on ESPN3.

Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Jordan Wallach

Jordan Wallach is a Senior Staff Writer at The Stanford Daily. He was previously the Managing Editor of Sports, a sports desk editor for two volumes and he continues to work as a beat writer for Stanford's baseball, football and women's volleyball teams. Jordan is a junior from New York City majoring in Mathematical and Computational Science. To contact him, please send him an email at jwallach 'at' stanford.edu.