After winning three national titles in four years from 2016-2019, Stanford women’s volleyball is looking to get back to the top of the sport. And though the pandemic severely impacted the outcome of their last two seasons, the 2022 squad looks much more like the program Cardinal fans were once accustomed to.
With 10 matches left before the NCAA tournament, The Daily’s Charis Charitsis, Faris Bdair, Ronnie Hafez and Madeline Grabb discuss the season so far and what they are expecting to see down the stretch.
Stanford sits at No. 8 in the country with a record of 14-4, is atop the Pac-12 with a 9-1 conference record and is ranked No. 5 in the RPI. Do you believe that those rankings are an accurate reflection of the Cardinal? Give a letter grade for their season so far.
Charis Charitsis (CC): Given the individual pieces, I give Stanford an A (if not A+). It’s a group of high-level players that click as a team. Coach Hambly and the rest of the staff are doing well so far.
Ronnie Hafez (RH): I do believe that those rankings are accurate, even if Stanford is better than a few teams that stack up ahead of them. I would give this team an A- so far because they seem to really have found their stride over the past eight games, never giving up more than one set. They had two tough losses against Penn State and Oregon, and this team is certainly prone to mistakes at times. However, the floor defense has come a long way and the blocking up front has become a defining feature of this Stanford team. Their attack has become more versatile, and they have a lot of weapons in their arsenal with the rise of freshman outside Elia Rubin alongside senior opposite Kendall Kipp and redshirt junior outside Caitie Baird. I’m hopeful for this team moving forward because this recent play has taken them to a new level, but let’s see if they can stay consistent.
Faris Bdair (FB): These rankings are absolutely an accurate reflection of the Cardinal season, No. 8 even seems a little low. They’ve played well against the best of the best, playing arguably the second hardest non-conference schedule in the country (Ohio State is No. 1). That being said, it hasn’t always been pretty. And that’s why, for me, the Cardinal are currently straddling the A-/B+ line. This seems a little harsh, but it’s because of how well they’ve played that I can afford to be a little more critical. Going on the road to current No. 1 Nebraska and handing them their only loss of the season (even with 23 service errors in four sets) is the most impressive feat in all of college volleyball this season, but it’s that same win that makes the Oregon sweep and the Penn State loss hurt that much more. They have the talent to be the best team in the country, we’re just waiting on the consistency (USC is a fantastic start).
Madeline Grabb (MG): I think these rankings are pretty accurate, and would give Stanford an A- thus far. With the exception of a few hiccups (the straight set loss to Oregon when sophomore middle blocker Sami Francis was out, plus a number of slower-than-ideal match starts), the overall trend has been definitively towards improvement. And I think that positive trend is key. The ultimate goal for this program is not to be No. 1 at the beginning of the season, it’s to be the last team standing in December.
What about this Stanford team has impressed you the most? Where do they have the most room for improvement?
CC: They keep improving. By that, I mean they become a better t-e-a-m every week. They are not necessarily becoming better players individually, but they play better together as a team. Volleyball is, after all, a team sport.
RH: The resilience of this Stanford team has been very impressive. Time and time again, they’ve demonstrated the ability to erase deficits with stretches of high-quality volleyball. Just last week against UCLA, they were down over five points in two of three sets, but still came away with a 3-0 sweep. With that said, they need to start strong. This team has had a tendency of starting slow, letting their opponents get out to early leads. While they have been able to come back at times, it won’t be easy to do that against the best teams in the country. On another note, they need to clean up sloppy plays and the floor defense must rise even more if they hope to compete with the likes of Texas, Louisville and Nebraska.
FB: For me, the most impressive part of this Stanford team is how big a part the freshman have played. It goes without saying that Rubin has been outstanding, but there are some nights where she’s looked like the best player on the court. On top of her offensive production, she’s also second on the team in aces with 20. It doesn’t end with her though. Freshman setter Kelly Belardi is fifth in aces (she led the team with three against USC) and freshman defensive specialist Anna Pringle has been a factor defensively, most notably against UCLA where she was subbed on in the second set. With the score sitting at 20-15 in favor of UCLA, Pringle was able to help lead arguably the best stretch of volleyball the Cardinal have played this season to win the set 25-21. It’s also important to note that Belardi was the one serving for the majority of that run.
MG: In my eyes, the most impressive aspect is how well members of this team have adapted to new competition and new positions. So I have to agree with what others have already said about Rubin. There are plenty of examples across all sports of top junior players and prospects who struggle when they get to college. But Rubin has hit the ground as a six-rotation all-around threat, hitting .313 in her collegiate debut and contributing defensively as well. Similarly, Francis has also adapted well to her new role as a middle, while Kipp and Baird have already more than demonstrated their versatility. But I agree that consistency and execution will be the name of the game. In an NCAA tournament match, the Cardinal will not have time to ease themselves in. If they start slow against Texas, for example, Longhorn outside Logan Eggleston will have no problem turning their hesitation into her good fortune.
If you had to give an MVP award of the season as of now, who would you give it to?
CC: That’s easy. #13 Elia Rubin. Although a freshman, she is solid both offensively and defensively. While she does not have the best stats offensively (Kipp does), she is a better defender. High volleyball IQ.
RH: At this point in the season, I would have to give the award to Kipp. She’s been the most consistent player on this team, averaging over five points a set. When in doubt, feed Kendall the ball, and she’ll get you a point. Her serving and blocking have also been strong points for her. As the veteran leader on this team with national title experience, Kipp has been the rock of this Stanford squad.
FB: I’m trying my best to come up with an answer that’s different from my colleagues above, but the truth is, I can’t. Kipp has been far and away the best player on this Cardinal team. That’s not a dig at Stanford’s roster, it’s just that she’s been one of the best players in the entire country this year. She’s hit at a remarkable .299 over the course of the season, she’s second in the Pac-12 in aces per set, second in the Pac-12 in points per set, and fifth in the Pac-12 in kills per set. All of this while splitting the load three ways with Rubin and Baird proves just how efficient she’s been for this Cardinal team.
MG: I have to go with Kipp as well. She’s one of the few players left on this year’s squad who played during that magical 2019 season, when she made a real difference as a freshman. That experience has clearly served her well in terms of performance, as Faris laid out above, and she’s a lethal threat out of the back row.
What is the biggest key for Stanford to make a deep run in the tournament?
CC: Define deep run, please. If you mean Final Four, I find it difficult. And if you mean winning the title, I find it unlikely. We need squads like the 2016-2019 Dream Team (especially the 2018 team with the 34-1 record!). With Plummer (best outside hitter), Gray (excellent setter), Hentz (best libero ever) and other great pieces like Fitzmorris, McClure and Gates. Teams like these can have a very deep run (i.e., go all the way). From the current roster, only Rubin, Kipp and junior libero Elena Oglivie could make the 2018 or 2019 roster (obviously not as starters). Not that the rest are not amazing players, but I don’t think that this team can compete with some of our past teams, or even win a set. But on a very positive note, our team is getting better every week.
RH: The biggest key for Stanford this year is staying consistent and limiting mistakes. There’s a ton of talent on this team, and when they’re clicking, they have the potential to be the most dangerous team in the country. I truly believe that. This past weekend against USC, they didn’t give up more than 16 points in any set, and hit .605 as a team. Matches like this give me a lot of faith this far into the season, especially against a strong squad like USC. That said, I think this team is ripe for a final four run, if not a National Title appearance. When their pins are playing at a high rate, and the tandem of Francis and redshirt junior middle blocker McKenna Vicini are blocking well, this offense can be lights out. Defensively, Oglivie stacks up with the best liberos in the country, and setter Kami Miner has elevated her play to another level this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if this team brought home a National Championship.
FB: The biggest key for the Cardinal is to stay healthy. We saw last year how quickly an injured Cardinal team could fall, and this year is no different. We’re seeing day-in, day-out how good a healthy Stanford can be, but don’t forget that the Cardinal’s worst loss (Oregon) came with Francis out. If they can stay healthy, the Card have about as good a shot as anyone to make that deep tournament run.
MG: Stanford has demonstrated an ability to compete with some of the best in the country, but a deep tournament run will require the team to do so consistently. I think they’re finding that rhythm and consistency now, so it will be all about holding onto it once the pressure is on. Because at their best, Kipp, Rubin, Baird, Miner, Francis and company are definitely a force to be reckoned with.
It’s time for some predictions! Looking at the remaining schedule, what overall seed do you expect Stanford to be in the bracket? How far will they go in the tournament, and which school wins it all?
CC: Realistically speaking, up to 5 or 6. Hope we are No. 5. I think that Stanford can make it to the Elite 8. I hope it does. Then it depends on the opponent (how good of a matchup it is and not so much the rankings). There are also other factors (e.g., injuries) that can sway the outcome either way. So it’s too early to risk any predictions.
RH: If Stanford wins out, which they certainly have the potential to do, they have a good case for the fourth seed. It definitely depends on the play of other teams as well, but if we keep up this play, I don’t see us finishing below the No. 6 or 7 seed. I predict that the Stanford Cardinal will make and WIN the National Championship. It’s bold, but I believe in Kevin Hambly and this team to get it together by the end of the year and shock some people.
FB: This is the part of the season where things get interesting. I think without a doubt, the Top 4 teams in the country right now are Nebraska, Texas, Louisville and San Diego. I also think that the Cardinal will win out and put themselves at No. 5. This is why things are interesting though, the order of the Top 4 is extremely important for Stanford in this scenario. Stanford matches up well with Nebraska, Louisville, and San Diego, but poorly with Texas. For that reason, my prediction is this: Stanford will beat every team until they face Texas. If Texas is No. 4, that means they’ll meet in the Elite Eight. If Texas is No. 1, it’ll be the Final Four, and if Texas is No. 2 (as they currently are) or 3, it’ll be in the National Championship. On the off chance that someone else beats Texas, Stanford will be your national champion.