Women’s volleyball stays loose as wins pile up

Oct. 30, 2014, 10:48 p.m.

If the pressure is getting to Stanford’s women’s volleyball (20-0, 10-0 Pac-12), the top-ranked team in the nation and winners of 20 straight matches to start the season, you certainly wouldn’t know it from how the team emerged from its locker room in Maples Pavilion for practice on Wednesday.

(NATHAN STAFFA/The Stanford Daily)
Junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku headlined Stanford’s 3-1 win over USC this past Sunday, collecting 16 kills and three blocks. (NATHAN STAFFA/The Stanford Daily)

It was their annual Halloween practice, which head coach John Dunning started in 2000 when he took over the team. Junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku dressed as a grandma, senior libero Kyle Gilbert was wrapped in balloons, junior outside hitter Brittany Howard donned her best Crocodile Hunter outfit (along with a blown-up crocodile) and even Dunning showed up as Stanford’s long-time baseball head coach Mark “Nine” Marquess. In more volleyball-themed costumes setters Kelsey Humphreys and Madi Bugg were Pete and re-pete since they’re always told to work on repeating their sets and middle blocker Merete Lutz was “the press” as Dunning emphasizes her need to work on pressing on her block.

“I love this tradition. There are some great pictures of this tradition, annual pictures, back to Janet Okogbaa ’10 dressing up as The Hatch from Lost, which was unbelievable,” Dunning said. “The only rule is they have to be able to go through warm-ups and exercises with their costumes on, so they can’t be too crazy. So it’ll be interesting seeing Britt go through warm-ups with her costume.”

By the way, Howard only barely got through practice by taping the seven-foot-long crocodile to her back.

“Last year, we had just lost to USC and we were all thinking, ‘Are we still doing Halloween? Is this a thing?’” Ajanaku said. “We really value our traditions, it’s stuff that we could talk about with the alums when they come back. It’s another thing that reminds us that we’re family and more than just a volleyball team.”

This season, the team’s camaraderie and attitude has been crucial through its run of close matches, which have accumulated much faster than they did last season. The Cardinal have swept just nine of their 20 opponents (45 percent) thus far this season, compared to 22 sweeps of 33 total opponents last season (67 percent). The players have seen that they’re getting their opponents’ best efforts, now with the target of being “No. 1” on their backs.

“We’re kind of looking at every match as if it’s part of the tournament because you know everyone is going to play their best. So we get great competition every weekend,” said junior outside hitter Jordan Burgess. “We’ll play teams that don’t have great records, but when they come and play us, we realize, ‘Man, that’s a really good team.’ We’re getting really lucky and being tested every single weekend.”

Grinding out their four and five-set matches so far has continued to build the team’s confidence, a key as Stanford maintains its winning streak.

“Our team knows that losing motivates in a different way. They’ve experienced it, they’ve been motivated for a long time by losing to Penn State to end our season,” Dunning said. “When you go through streaks — a time when you don’t lose — you can’t simulate that, you can’t create a way to make them feel it anyway.

“If another team is going to bring you their best game and be really excited and have energy and be motivated, and you can’t match that, it’s hard. You have to then have other ways that you can recover and be good. And our team is experienced enough to know they have to do that, and they’re learning how to do it.”

It isn't all work for the No. 1 Stanford women's volleyball team as they carried out their annual Halloween practice. (Courtesy of Stanford Athletics)
It isn’t all work for the No. 1 Stanford women’s volleyball team as they carried out their annual Halloween practice on Wednesday. (Courtesy of Stanford Athletics)

This weekend, the Cardinal will hit the road to face two opponents they have already defeated this season. Up first for Stanford on Halloween night is Oregon State (14-7, 4-6), who they have beat 57 out of 57 times in program history, including a sweep on Oct. 4 in Maples Pavilion. While the Beavers are coming off of an upset of then-No. 18 Arizona State, who they swept in Corvallis last Saturday, they have generally struggled in conference play. Entering that match against the Sun Devils, they had lost five of six against Pac-12 opponents.

Oregon State is led on offense by freshman outside hitter Mary-Kate Marshall, who ranks fifth in the conference with 4.23 kills per set this season — she’s the only underclassman in the top-10 and is behind only seniors on the list. Defensively, junior libero Darby Reeder is a player to look out for, as she earned the Defensive Player of the Week honors after averaging 7.43 digs per set in the Beavers’ two matches last weekend.

The Cardinal will travel to Eugene, Oregon, after the game, likely getting in before Stanford football’s tussle with the Ducks at Autzen Stadium. No. 12 Oregon (16-4, 6-4), one of seven Pac-12 teams ranked in the AVCA’s top-25 poll and Stanford’s 11th ranked opponent of the season, will take on the Cardinal on Sunday.

Stanford won the first matchup between the two teams this season in four sets back on Oct. 3 in Maples Pavilion. The Cardinal only dropped the third set of the match, still outhitting the Ducks .346 to .235. Oregon junior outside hitter Martenne Bettendorf, who leads her team with 3.32 kills per set this season, hit .448 in the first match between the two teams, with 14 kills and just one error on 29 total attempts.

A key Stanford player to look out for this weekend is sophomore middle blocker Merete Lutz, the reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Week who also earned the same honor for her play against Oregon and Oregon State the first time around. That weekend, she had a .639 combined hitting percentage after totaling 24 kills with just one error on 36 attempts.

First serve against Oregon State tonight is set for 6 p.m., and Sunday’s match against Oregon is set to start at 11 a.m. Both matches will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.

Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jordan Wallach is a Senior Staff Writer at The Stanford Daily. He was previously the Managing Editor of Sports, a sports desk editor for two volumes and he continues to work as a beat writer for Stanford's baseball, football and women's volleyball teams. Jordan is a junior from New York City majoring in Mathematical and Computational Science. To contact him, please send him an email at jwallach 'at' stanford.edu.

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