As most students enjoyed the dwindling days of summer vacation, the No. 2 Stanford women’s volleyball team spent the past three weeks competing against several of the nation’s premier programs and kicking off the inaugural season of Pac-12 play in fine form. After a perfect preseason—including marquee wins over a pair of four-time defending national champions, No. 5 Penn State and No. 6 Florida—the Cardinal (8-1, 2-1 Pac-12) has fallen only to top-ranked California in a tough road matchup.
Stanford began the 2011 season in Houston at the Rice Nike Invitational, winning in straight sets over Delaware and Rice. Junior setter Karissa Cook was named the tournament’s MVP following her double-double (32 assists, 10 digs) in the final, and sophomores Rachel Williams and Carly Wopat emerged as the team’s offensive targets, both earning all-tournament honors.
Next, the Card returned to Maples Pavilion for its first four home matches of the season. Hosting two tournaments, the Card bested Notre Dame and Duke in the Stanford Invitational and followed that up with key non-conference wins over Penn State and Florida in the Nike Volleyball Big Four Classic. The four-set victory over the Nittany Lions (7-3), whose 109-match winning streak the Cardinal ended at the same tournament last year, gives Stanford a 7-6 edge in the overall series between the two perennial national-title contenders.
The next night, after giving up a two-set lead, Stanford fought back and prevailed in a tight 15-13 fifth set over the Gators (8-2) to win the Classic—Williams was named MVP of both tournaments on the Farm.
With just a few days to recover, Stanford lost its first match of the season to Bay Area rival Cal (13-0, 3-0) on Sept. 13. After narrowly winning the first set (25-23), the Card dropped three straight, hitting a season-low .103 on the night. Stanford rebounded the next weekend back at home, sweeping new conference opponents Utah (6-5, 1-1) and Colorado (5-6, 0-3) and leaving the Card in a three-way tie for third in the conference standings.
This weekend, Stanford will face two familiar conference foes in No. 7 UCLA (9-2, 2-1) and No. 12 USC (7-3, 2-1) in what could be its toughest weekend of the season. Last fall, the Bruins ended the Cardinal’s undefeated streak with a heartbreaking five-set loss in Los Angeles. Coming off a loss at No. 4 Washington last weekend, UCLA—led by returning All-Pac-10 honorees, junior outside hitter Rachael Kidder and senior libero Lainey Gera—will be looking to bounce back with a win against the Card.
A unanimous preseason pick by the Pac-12 coaches to win the conference and the preseason No. 2 in the AVCA poll, USC has struggled to live up to expectations this September, suffering sweeps to UCF and UCLA. However, the veteran team features seven returners from the 2010 squad that finished third in the nation, including three All-American seniors in outside hitter Alex Jupiter, setter Kendall Bateman and middle blocker Lauren Williams, as well as the 2010 Pacific Region Freshman of the Year, outside hitter Falyn Fonoimoana.
The Cardinal and coach John Dunning will take on UCLA in Los Angeles at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 23.