Head coach John Dunning and Stanford’s women’s volleyball team have long prided themselves on lining up a challenging non-conference slate in preparation for a tough Pac-12 schedule. But while it’s one thing to schedule early matches against some of the best teams in the country, it’s another thing to utterly dominate those matches in the season’s opening weeks.
The No. 1 Cardinal (10-0) did exactly that to open up their 2014 campaign, going undefeated in non-conference play for just the seventh time since 1986. They played five matches against ranked opponents over the season’s first four weekends, among them a thriller against the reigning national champion and then-No. 1 Penn State, which the Cardinal knocked off in five sets at Maples Pavilion.
This past weekend, Stanford played three matches at the University of San Diego Invitational and won them all, defeating the host No. 19 San Diego (7-5), as well as Eastern Washington (4-8) and Cal State Northridge (9-3).
The University of San Diego Toreros were up first on Thursday night, and they would be the only team to win a set against the Cardinal all weekend. Stanford took its first match of the invitational at the Jenny Craig Pavilion in four sets, 25-13, 23-25, 25-14, 25-21.
The Cardinal finished off Eastern Washington in just over an hour on Friday night, winning 25-11, 25-19, 25-16, before sweeping Cal State Northridge on Saturday, 25-10, 25-12, 25-21.
The story once again for Stanford was the strong play from its middle blockers, spurred by ball control and key passing from junior setter Madi Bugg, who was honored as the Invitational’s Most Valuable Player after tallying 95 assists over the team’s three matches.
Just last week, Dunning said, “Our team is realizing that if we work really hard on ball control and if we work really hard on serving, then we have an opportunity to get to two hitters that can do some damage.”
That turned out to be key in San Diego, as junior Inky Ajanaku and redshirt freshman Merete Lutz continued to be go-to options for the Cardinal’s offense. Both were named to the all-Invitational team, as Ajanaku hit .569 with 30 kills over seven sets played, while Lutz hit .578 with 28 kills over her seven sets.
The two players have accounted for 37 percent (188 of 512) of Stanford’s kills so far this season, continuing the program’s trend of having a strong presence at middle and showing no drop-off after the graduation of Carly Wopat ‘14, who was the team’s anchor at the position for four seasons.
Lutz has continued to break out after redshirting last season, and entered this weekend with the best individual hitting percentage in the NCAA this season at .576. (She finished the Invitational at .577.) She had a career-high and match-high 15 kills against San Diego on Friday.
Still, the Cardinal have maintained a balanced offense with the strength of its outside hitters. Junior Jordan Burgess leads all Stanford players not named Ajanaku with a cool 100 kills this season, and is also one of just two players to have appeared in each of the team’s 36 sets.
Stanford opens up conference play with the Big Spike on Tuesday at Maples Pavilion, taking on California, which is 8-2 to start the season. First serve is set for 6 p.m. and the match will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.