What a difference a few weeks have made for Stanford’s women’s volleyball team and head coach John Dunning.
After the Cardinal’s loss to then-No. 4 USC on Oct. 30, Dunning’s postgame refrain, “I’m angry because I didn’t think it had to end up this way,” signified rock bottom for a team that some had favored to win the national title. Last night, Dunning, who rarely — if ever — shows emotion on the court, let loose an emphatic fist pump and an ear-to-ear grin as Stanford upset the No. 3 Washington Huskies in a straight-set victory, 25-19, 25-21, 25-22, for Dunning’s 799th career win.
The No. 5 Cardinal (21-5, 14-3 Pac-12) played arguably its most dominant match of the season in handling the Huskies (23-2, 15-2).
“After we lost [to USC], we made some changes. We’ve been working really hard on some things, but then you have to win some,” Dunning said. “We were all tired coming into this week, but we did a good job on the road and coming into this one, we knew it would catapult us forward.”
Stanford executed its game plan on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball last night, and in doing so, avoided ever falling too far behind the Huskies. In an Oct. 20 match between the two teams earlier this season, Washington dominated with it serve, tallying 10 aces. Last night, however, the Cardinal limited the Huskies to just one ace and was able to control the dig, setting up a strong offensive attack.
“When three of your primary passers are hitters, the other team is going to serve them when they have to hit,” Dunning said. “After a while, even though they’re really good passers, they start to think about hitting before they finish passing. And so that’s been a focus for three weeks now — focusing on making sure they pass before they go to hit.”
That focus worked for sophomore setter Madi Bugg, who tallied 38 assists in the match.
The Cardinal came out slow to start the first set, falling behind 5-1 before Dunning called a timeout. Huskies outside hitter Krista Vansant, the reigning Pac-12 offensive player of the week, made her presence known early, recording Washington’s first three kills. Yet the timeout proved to be key for the Card, as Stanford won four of the next six points to keep the set from getting out of hand.
Though it had a hard time receiving Huskies’ serve early on, as it did in the first match between the two teams, Stanford ran away with the set later on with strong outside play from senior Rachel Williams, who tallied a team-high 11 kills in the match. The Cardinal out hit the Huskies .433 to .211 in the opening frame, and Stanford’s mark was its highest in a set since its Nov. 8 match at Colorado.
The second set was a thriller in which Stanford found itself behind early and often. Yet the turning point, once again, came shortly after a Dunning timeout. Down 20-21, sophomore outside hitter Jordan Burgess evened the score with a solo block and kill. The next point, Burgess found another hole in the Husky defense to give the Cardinal its first lead in the set since an earlier 9-8 advantage. Stanford didn’t drop another point in the set to take a two-game lead.
Washington was held to just a .100 hitting percentage in that second set, reflecting the strong play of a Cardinal defense that entered Wednesday’s match ranked fourth in the nation in blocking. Stanford recorded seven of its 10 team blocks in that set.
The Cardinal never surrendered the lead in the third set after going up 4-3 early on, earning its 17th sweep of the season. And during the match, junior libero Kyle Gilbert passed Kerri Walsh ’00 for fifth on Stanford’s all-time digs list with 1,295.
While the Cardinal still needs help from at least one of the Huskies’ remaining three opponents to have a shot at winning its seventh Pac-12 title in the last eight years, the significance of this victory lies beyond the conference standings.
“Our team is finally coming together and playing like we knew…we could at the beginning of the season,” said sophomore outside hitter Inky Ajanaku. “It’s finally happening for us right now, and it’s great because it’s right before the tournament — exactly when any team would want that to happen.”
Stanford continues what it hopes to be a championship run on Friday against Washington State. The match is set for 6 p.m. at Maples Pavilion and will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.