After their fourth loss of the season last weekend at the hands of current No. 5 Arizona State, Stanford’s women’s volleyball team hit the reset button. A tough nonconference slate followed by a difficult start to Pac-12 play saw the Cardinal face six top-25 opponents over their first 12 matches — four of those in the top 10 — and head coach John Dunning said, “We found a lot out about ourselves.”
After two full off-days and a week of practice that focused on defense and shoring up connections on offense, No. 7 Stanford (10-4, 4-2 Pac-12) returned to Maples Pavilion to take on the Oregon schools and earned hard-fought wins against both. The Cardinal took down Oregon State (4-12, 2-4) in a sweep on Friday night (25-19, 25-22, 25-18) and No. 25 Oregon (9-6, 3-3) in a four-setter on Sunday evening (25-27, 25-23, 25-10, 25-16).
“To come out and compete, get in a tough situation, fight our way though it and then play really well is a big step in the right direction,” Dunning said after Sunday’s win. “You have to develop confidence by what happens in games. You practice your way into things but you have to execute during games. I would say the last two games we executed very well.”
After spending extra time in practice last week building a stronger connection with senior setter Madi Bugg, freshman opposite hitter Hayley Hodson had the two best matches of her young career. She had 16 kills on 23 attacks for a .652 hitting percentage against the Beavers on Friday, and followed up with a career-high 22 kills on 33 attacks for a .636 hitting percentage against the Ducks on Sunday.
“We have gone really hard in practice working on timing our sets,” Hodson said. “It’s just been coming together, and also our defense and passing has picked up a lot so all of our hitters are able to be in system a lot more often… Especially in this last week, I feel like [Madi and I] took a big jump and got a lot better.”
“She’s actually gone through a few periods this season where it’s tiring, having not done all of this before,” Dunning said of Hodson. “You’re learning; you’re playing a new position. You can kind of get out of sync a little bit, and I think she has. But the last week and a half, she’s done some things that have really gotten her back in sync.”
More importantly, Hodson’s recent hot streak has opened up the rest of the Cardinal offense. Teams simply can’t stack defenders on junior middle blocker Merete Lutz if there’s a strong threat on the outside. As a result, Lutz had one of her better offensive games of the season on Sunday, hitting a season-high .536 with 15 kills on 28 swings with no errors.
On Friday, Stanford hit a season-high (until that point) .356 in Saturday’s domination of the Oregon State Beavers. The highlight of the match was Bugg becoming the 16th player in program history to hit the 1,000 dig plateau.
Sunday’s match was much more competitive. The Cardinal started off slow, perhaps a little nervous, as the first set saw 10 tie scores and eight lead changes. Still, they had a set point opportunity at 24-23 after an Oregon attack went long. But freshman Lindsey Vander Weide, who had seven kills on nine swings in the first frame and 17 kills on the match total, connected to even the match at 24. The Ducks went on to take the game, 27-25, after a miscommunication between senior outside hitter Jordan Burgess and freshman libero Halland McKenna.
Stanford started the second set off much stronger, but succumbed to an Oregon run late in the set and faced a two-set deficit as the Ducks were up 23-20. But the Cardinal rattled off five straight points to take the set and even the match before the break, with kills from Hodson and senior outside hitter Brittany Howard.
After that point, the Cardinal never looked back. The team almost entirely stayed in system for the remainder of the match, with a streak of offensive dominance. Stanford hit .714 in the third set (20 attacks and 0 errors on 28 total attacks) and .552 (17 kills and one error on 29 total attacks) in the fourth set en route to the match victory.
“What we like to talk about a lot in practice is just having urgency,” Howard said. “Obviously, when the game is on the line you do. But what we try to do is have it from the very first point. So we were kind of slow to do that. In this match, we started the second game well. But once we got that little bit of fire, that was able to carry into the third and fourth games.”
Whereas earlier this season — following consecutive losses to Penn State and UNC and then after two losses to USC and Arizona State early in conference play — it seemed as if the sky was falling for the Cardinal, the team has regained confidence as it hits the halfway point of the season. And with key players improving as the year continues, Dunning’s options on offense are expanding.
“We could be a team that can divide it however we want depending on who we play,” he said.
Senior outside hitter Jordan Burgess has been progressing after battling injuries through this past offseason and into the team’s first few weeks of the season. While her offensive numbers are still coming along, she has been contributing to the team in other ways as she gets better.
“One of the keys tonight was that they were trying to serve really tough, and Jordan passed nails. She passed a lot of great balls and that can even go away — that skill stuff can go away when you aren’t in sync enough,” Dunning said.
“Once you get hurt and it takes a while to recover, you have to play your way back into things. She’s extremely competitive and goes 100 percent on every play. That kind of person, when they’re coming back from being hurt, can hurt something else. And that’s exactly what happened. She’s finally getting past that. And I think we’ll see her level of play just go up.”
Junior middle blocker Ivana Vanjak, who slid into the role in the offseason after senior Inky Ajanaku was declared out for the season, has also had more offensive contributions as of late. Her emphatic swing clinched Sunday night’s match against Oregon, and she finished the night with 5 kills on 9 attacks. (Dunning noted: “It was almost like she was lucky to connect three weeks ago, and now it looks like she can really connect.”)
Stanford now turns the page to the second half of this season with another tough Pac-12 road trip. The Cardinal take on Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday night before heading to Boulder to take on Colorado on Sunday afternoon.
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.