The Cardinal women’s volleyball team will become the youngest ever to play for the national title after handling second-seeded Minnesota 26-24, 25-19, 22-25, 25-22 in the NCAA semifinals on Thursday.
For No. 6-seeded Stanford (26-7, 15-5 Pac-12), its youth serves as a key to victory, with freshman outside hitter Kathryn Plummer ending the night with a team-high 15 kills and freshman middle blocker Audriana Fitzmorris adding 10 kills and eight blocks. But when the heat was on and the Golden Gophers (29-5) climbed back to a 21-21 tie in the fourth set, it was veteran middle blocker Inky Ajanaku who came up with clutch hits to send the Cardinal to their 15th national championship appearance. The fifth-year senior recorded 15 kills on 30 hits to tie Plummer.
Hosted in Columbus, Ohio, the Final Four matchup featured three returning teams. The exception: Stanford. The waters were far from untested for the program, however, as the Cardinal had made it as far in 2014 and 18 other times before that. On Saturday, Stanford will take on Texas (27-4), which wiped out Nebraska (31-3) in the second semifinal of the night to punch its ticket to the Longhorns’ second straight title game.
In a defense-oriented match, both teams returned poor hitting percentages, with Stanford registering .188 to Minnesota’s .149. Ajanaku’s nine blocks moved her up to third place in program history with 619 across four seasons with the Cardinal.
The teams started off neck-and-neck, alternating seven consecutive points before Stanford took the first set in extra points.
The Cardinal dominated the second set and the beginning of the third, appearing well on their way to the final. The Golden Gophers clawed back, though, and captured a 25-22 victory to put Stanford, who had erased a 2-0 deficit against Wisconsin in the regional final on Saturday, on edge.
Minnesota ultimately could not complete the comeback in the fourth and final set after the Cardinal, giving up the first point of the set, did not fall behind for the remainder of the game.
A win on Saturday would give the team its seventh national title, a feat achieved by only one other team — Penn State — since the NCAA Championship started in 1981.
Contact Tristan Vanech at tvanech ‘at’ stanford.edu.