Although No. 14 Stanford women’s volleyball (2-0, 0-0 Pac-12) added six players to its roster ahead of this season, with five freshman and a graduate transfer, the biggest storyline in their Friday night season opening win against Lipscomb (0-1, 0-0 ASUN) was not about a newcomer. Instead, it was a familiar face in a new role.
Making a notable change to start off their 2022 campaign, the coaching staff moved sophomore Sami Francis — an outside hitter during her freshman season — to middle blocker. And judging from Francis’ performance this weekend, she appears to have found her home. The San Diego native had 11 kills and posted a career-best attack percentage of .667 in the team’s win over Lipscomb. Defensively, her eight blocks totaled another career-high.
The next night, Francis backed up the performance with another strong showing against Tennessee State (0-2, 0-0 OVC), hitting .385 while adding seven kills and five blocks. Her transition to this new role has been a long time in the making, according to head coach Kevin Hambly.
“We saw it last year in the fall and started working on that, with the intention that she could have a greater impact,” Hambly said. The sophomore has worked hard during the offseason and preseason to adjust to her new position, he said, one that she had never filled in a collegiate match setting until Friday.
“I’m excited to see how she develops throughout the year,” Hambly said. “She did a nice job blocking and she’s a presence in the middle of the court that you have to contend with.”
Despite a slow team start against Lipscomb, consistent offensive efforts from Francis and the team’s pin hitters helped them pull away from their opponents.
Sophomore setter and 2021 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Kami Miner ran a balanced offense that starred not only Francis, but also redshirt junior outside hitter Caitie Baird, senior opposite Kendall Kipp and freshman outside hitter Elia Rubin. Miner demonstrated further versatility by seizing and converting several hitting opportunities, along with recording over 30 assists in each of the two matches.
The Cardinal took set one 25-20. With the offense quite literally having found its swing, sets two and three were far more one-sided than the first. A kill from senior outside hitter Natalie Berty finished off the affair as the Cardinal walked away with a 25-20, 25-15, 25-14 sweep.
Rubin was the only freshman to make Stanford’s starting lineup this weekend and hit .313 in her collegiate debut. With solid ball control and an ability to play all six rotations, the pass hitter has already drawn comparisons to former Stanford outside hitter and six rotation player Meghan McClure ʼ21, a member of the Cardinal’s national championship teams in 2018 and 2019. Hambly noted Rubin’s passing skills as being especially impressive for a freshman, and he believes her hitting will follow.
“One of the things she’s going to have to learn is usually what freshmen have to learn,” Hambly said. “How to play the net game at this level.”
On Saturday, Stanford again found themselves pressed early on, this time by Tennessee State. The Tigers came out swinging, and their aggressive serving and defense seemed to momentarily startle the Cardinal. But just as they had against Lipscomb, Hambly’s team regrouped and ultimately settled in enough to take control of the match.
This time, it was Kipp who stepped up when her team needed it the most, hitting .433 to lead the Cardinal with 14 kills and six blocks while also tallying four digs. Her efforts, along with those of Baird and Francis, were critical to the team’s 25-18, 25-12, 25-18 win.
Hambly was especially pleased with the squad’s passing performance and ball control, anchored by Baird, Rubin and junior libero Elena Oglivie. “I think our passing was good for this time of year,” he said after Saturday’s match. “Usually it takes you a while to find your rhythm, but I think tonight we were in system a lot and had a lot of opportunities click.”
Though Stanford’s outings were both successful, Hambly says that the weekend exposed areas for the team to work on, particularly on the offensive end. And as the Cardinal venture into a difficult pre-conference schedule, he is well aware that he helms a program known for deep runs into the NCAA tournament, final four appearances and nine championship wins.
“We have the talent to compete with the top teams, there’s no avoiding that,” Hambly said. However, he believes the challenge for this year’s team will have more to do with consistency than technique.
It is a question which, according to Hambly, only the team itself will ultimately be able to answer: “Can we give our best when our best is needed?”
Next up, the Cardinal will head to the East Coast to take on No. 15 Florida (3-0, 0-0 SEC). First serve in Gainesville is scheduled for 4 p.m.