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Cardinal clinch first Final Four berth since 2008 with sweep of Gators
The No. 1 Cardinal are headed to Oklahoma City defeating No. 8 Florida in straight sets in the Ames regional final. Stanford will make its first Final Four appearance since 2008. (HECTOR GARCIA-MOLINA/stanfordphoto.com)

Cardinal clinch first Final Four berth since 2008 with sweep of Gators

The wait is finally over.

With a nearly flawless match, the No. 1 Stanford women’s volleyball team (33-1) defeated the No. 8 seeded Florida Gators (28-4) in straight sets (25-17, 25-22, 25-21) in Saturday night’s NCAA regional final, and with the victory, clinched a berth in the tournament’s Final Four for the first time since 2008.

Despite finishing towards the top of the Pac-12 Conference in each season since their last appearance in a national semifinal, a combination of misfortune with the tournament draw and untimely poor performances left the team with its longest such drought in program history. Head coach John Dunning’s ear-to-ear grin during his post-match interview with ESPN told the whole story about what it feels like to recapture the postseason success that built this program in the early going.

“The last two years for our team have been pretty hard. Not that anyone should feel sorry for us, but that we work hard like everybody else and we didn’t get to where we wanted to go,” Dunning later said. “We worked really hard. To get over the hurdle we just did is a very exciting thing. I’m very proud of our team.”

In a recent interview, three-time national champion Lisa Sharpley ’98, who quarterbacked the Cardinal’s 6-2 offense of the mid-90s, questioned whether this year’s team would have the swagger and confidence to get past the tougher teams in the late rounds of the tournament, with the players having not reached the final rounds in years. So far, the unequivocal answer from the 2014 Stanford team is that they do, whether or not they’ve had the experience or not.

“No one on our team has [been to the Final Four], so it will be a new experience for us and it is something that we’ve always strived for this whole time,” said junior outside hitter Jordan Burgess. “We’ve always wanted to win a national championship. Getting past the Elite 8 has been something that has been very hard for us, so we are so excited and super proud of our whole team.”

Stanford’s performance in the first set on Saturday the tone for the match, as they came out of the locker room playing some of the most dominating volleyball they have all season: the team hit .560 in the first frame with 15 kills and just one error on 25 total attempts. While they couldn’t quite sustain that production for the entire match, the Cardinal finished with a .410 hitting percentage, their highest mark since before the start of conference play.

The tempo of Stanford’s offense proved to be too much for the SEC champion Gators, who entered the match having won 23 consecutive matches, the longest streak in the nation. Junior setter Madi Bugg tallied 39 assists in the match, distributing the ball almost evenly to all five of the Cardinal’s usual suspects on offense.

Junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku was named the Ames regional's Most Outstanding Player after combining to hit .400 with 25 kills over the Cardinal's wins over Oregon State and Florida. (HECTOR GARCIA-MOLINA/stanfordphoto.com)

Junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku was named the Ames regional’s Most Outstanding Player after combining to hit .400 with 25 kills over the Cardinal’s wins over Oregon State and Florida. (HECTOR GARCIA-MOLINA/stanfordphoto.com)

Five players — including Bugg herself, who had two kills on five attempts — hit at least .400 in the match. Burgess and senior opposite hitter Morgan Boukather each had 12 kills, while middle blockers Inky Ajanaku and Merete Lutz each recorded nine kills. One of those kills for Ajanaku marked the 1,000th of her career, making her the 16th Cardinal player to reach the milestone in program history.

“We do have five hitters that as we’ve gone through the season, we weren’t always at the level that we’re at now. One of our goals is to work hard every week and to be the team that improves every week. It’s hard to do that,” Dunning said. “All of our hitters are hitting in the right direction right now, which is really good for us. It depends on ball control every match. We do have five weapons and Madi’s a weapon too.”

Ajanaku was named the Ames regional’s Most Outstanding Player after hitting .400 with 25 kills and five blocks over the Cardinal’s two wins, while Bugg and senior libero Kyle Gilbert were also named to the All-Regional team.

The only points of uncertainty for Stanford came when facing a deficit early in the second set, and when the Gators crept back into the third set to even the score at 21, but each time, the Cardinal went on a run to swing the momentum back in its favor. A four-point run closed the match for Stanford, with kill from Burgess clinching the team’s spot in the Final Four.

“There was a lot of emotion on the court before that just because we were all super excited and a little bit angry,” Burgess said. “So during the timeout it was just to draw back and focus and remember our game plan. Remember that at times like that you don’t have to be great to win, you just have to be good.”

Before a pit stop in Tulsa, Oklahoma for a rest day at the Ajanaku household, the Cardinal will get right back to work in preparation for what is sure to be one of the sport’s matches of the year. Stanford will take on a familiar foe in Penn State in the national semifinal match in the third meeting between the two teams over the last two seasons.

Last season, the Nittany Lions ended the Cardinal’s NCAA tournament run in a five-set match in the Lexington regional final en route to a championship of their own. Earlier this season, Stanford dethroned Penn State in another five-setter at Maples Pavilion, which catapulted the team atop the AVCA rankings. There’s likely to be no shortage of drama this time around as well with a spot in the national championship match at stake against the winner of the other semifinal between Texas and BYU. Stanford and Penn State are tied at the top of the NCAA record books with 16 national championships apiece, so add an opportunity to break that tie to the stakes of this match.

First serve on Thursday night from Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City is set for 6:30 p.m. Pacific. The match will be televised on ESPN2.

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

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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.