Women’s volleyball completes second consecutive Pac-12 sweep

Sept. 28, 2014, 11:49 p.m.

No. 1 Stanford women’s volleyball (12-0) head coach John Dunning recently intimated that this year’s team has yet to reach its full potential. Dunning is usually candid about his team and their performances, and quite often spot on. If he’s even a little bit right, the sky is the limit for this Cardinal volleyball team. And as of Friday night, the sky hardly seemed like a barrier for the Cardinal in their three-set sweep of Washington State (25-21, 25-9, 25-20).

(ZETONG LI/The Stanford Daily)
Junior outside hitter Brittany Howard (above) has notched 83 kills this season in the 40 sets that she has played. (ZETONG LI/The Stanford Daily)

The women’s volleyball team has yet to lose and has won its last four matches in straight-set sweeps. What’s more, the team has entered seamlessly into Pac-12 play, coming after perhaps its strongest match win since Penn State on Tuesday over Cal. Friday night, the Cardinal continued their superb play with a straight-set win over the Cougars.

The first set was a closely contested battle; it became clear early on that WSU’s ground game is one of the best in the conference. Time and time again, Stanford’s kills were denied by digs by WSU, especially by Kyra Holt and Kate Sommer. Stanford, attacking mostly from the left and led by junior outside hitter Brittany Howard, junior outside hitter Jordan Burgess and senior opposite Morgan Boukather, was unable to convert on the consistently excellent sets of junior setter Madi Bugg.

It’s not as if the Cardinal outside hitters played anything but outstandingly; the intensity of the first set was simply a testament to the resolve of the WSU women, who were able to consistently get saves on good strikes by Stanford. And nobody on Washington State was more impressive than Chelsey Bettinson, who showcased her pure athleticism with a number of vicious kills that elicited more than a few raised eyebrows from the partisan crowd.

It started, and — so much more often — stopped with the Cardinal middle blockers, sophomore Merete Lutz and junior Inky Ajanaku, who both played one of their best games all year long. Lutz (.500 hitting percentage, eight kills) and Ajanaku (.400 hitting percentage, 11 kills) were unstoppable up the middle, and their height forced WSU to adjust its attacking angles. As a result, ever-consistent senior libero Kyle Gilbert had little trouble providing easily settable balls to Bugg.

“We know that our middle is one of our greatest strengths,” Lutz said after the game. “We want to make sure we’re playing Stanford volleyball, make sure we’re playing our game.”

And playing their game does not seem to entail any sort of identity crisis; instead, it seems to be about asserting their will over opponents and wearing them down. It didn’t take long to see that on Friday night, when it became clear that the Stanford middle and the unrelenting attack led by Howard were indeed wearing down WSU. With WSU continually on the back foot, Stanford was able to force a number of mistakes by WSU; Holt, who performed so solidly in the first set, finished the match with five errors.

Ajanaku and Lutz, with all kinds of support from the back, proved to be overwhelming for the Cougars, who have lost their two opening conference matches after a strong start to the season. Give credit to the Cougars, however, who after the tough battle in the first set, were crushed in the second and could have easily become demoralized, but instead rallied in the third set.

“They are a fiery, competitive team.” Lutz said of WSU. “They fought extremely hard the entire [time], especially to end the game.”

At points, WSU looked just as good as the Cardinal, but Lutz and Ajanaku were just too much for the Cougars to overcome.

Lutz put on a big smile when asked about Ajanaku’s game: “Inky was just incredible…hitting all the spots, on top of all her blocks.”

There were still some mistakes on the part of the Cardinal, and on occasion, they seemed unable or tentative to finish off WSU in decisive fashion in the third set. Dunning may be right — this team can get better. And that should be frightening for everyone else.

The undefeated Cardinal play Oregon next on Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. at Maples Pavilion. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.

Contact Nicholas Radoff at nradoff ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Nic Radoff '15 is now officially from Oakland and is a proud to be a history major and a Latin-American studies minor. Nic was a staff writer for women's soccer and follows football extensively, whether his editors let him write about it or not. He is a proud member of the men's club lacrosse team and invites you all to come watch most Saturdays, even though you might not see him on the field much. He enjoys spending time with his family, hiking with his husky Artoo, lamenting his A's and maintaining that things get better with age.

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