Tonight, the No. 1 Stanford women’s volleyball team (10-0) opens conference play with the Big Spike against Cal (8-2). This is only the seventh time since 1986 that the Cardinal have started conference play undefeated.
Stanford ended non-conference play with a bang last weekend at the USD Invitational, with junior setter Madi Bugg winning tournament MVP and junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku and redshirt freshman middle blocker Merete Lutz named to the all-tournament team.
“Last year was really great [for me] because it was a redshirt season so I got to see what the game situations were like, what we did,” Lutz said. “I got all of those freshman jitters out. I know what to do, I know our routine, I know how to scout, so this year is a lot more smooth sailing.”
Currently, Lutz and Ajanaku are ranked first and second in the Pac-12 in hitting percentage. Lutz is hitting .577, while Ajanaku is hitting .510. In addition, senior libero Kyle Gilbert leads the Pac-12 in digs per set with a mark of 4.33.
“This was the way we wanted to start out, and of course beating Penn State was a little revenge match, which was nice,” Lutz said. “We’re definitely on the upswing and we’ll hopefully keep getting better and play competitive Stanford volleyball.”
After losing in five matches to Penn State in the Elite Eight of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, the Card powered through another grueling five-set match in just the third game of this season against the then-No. 1 Nittany Lions. This time, however, the Card came out on top, and the resurgence of confidence has propelled the team throughout the rest of non-conference play.
“I think we are very prepared or feeling a lot more confident just because we haven’t lost yet and we’ve played some ranked teams who are really good and have really challenged us,” Lutz said. “Knowing that we could overcome that [Elite Eight loss last year] and end up winning has just added a lot to our confidence.”
This season, the Card have also had to adapt to filling the leadership roles and starting positions of graduated seniors in middle blocker Carly Wopat ’14 and outside hitter Rachel Williams ’14.
“My second season, we didn’t lose starters necessarily, so filling those roles and having younger people step up [this year] is really fun,” said junior outside hitter Brittany Howard. “I think working together on the court and figuring out what we respond to best has been the best thing for us so far.
“We kind of knew that we would have to fill these roles and we just came into it competing. It’s not like there’s been one person that’s stepped up but everyone has one more year under their belt and more maturity so girls in my class [juniors] have stepped up, and Morgan [Boukather] and Kyle [Gilbert] are the captains and have done a great job.”
The Cardinal have managed to transition into the loss of those two key players seamlessly. However, at the same time, the team’s impressive display against a tough non-conference slate has also placed a lot of pressure and expectations upon the Cardinal women as they begin Pac-12 play and look ahead to the NCAA tournament.
“We have different things to work on against each team and every team’s different. Some teams are faster, some teams set higher balls, so you have to change for each one,” Lutz said. “I would just say the biggest thing [to work on] would probably be ball control and just passing and setting and executing on hits and blocking so that we can get our points and win our games.”
Cal will be first on deck for the Cardinal as Stanford aims to take the Pac-12 title back this year after finishing second last season. Cal is led by senior outside hitter Christina Higgins and senior middle blocker Lillian Schonewise.
Higgins is averaging a team-high 3.00 kills per set this season, coming off of AVCA Second Team All-American honors last season. Cal co-captain Schonewise played on the Pac-12 All-Star team that competed in China this summer with Howard and Bugg. She is ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in hitting percentage at .347 and is sixth in the Pac-12 in blocks per set with 1.28.
“Starting conference play, we just want to make sure that we’re still just playing Stanford volleyball,” Howard said. “We don’t want any team to get us out of our groove. Passing good, hitting, knowing where to attack [will be keys to the game]. “
First serve of the Big Spike is set for 6 p.m. tonight at Maples Pavilion.
Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu.