It may not have been their best, but it was enough.
No. 5 Stanford women’s volleyball (25-4, 19-1 Pac-12) began their 2022 NCAA tournament campaign in Maples Pavilion on Friday night. In front of an excited home crowd, the Cardinal showed signs of dominance and, despite a brief stumble, recovered enough to defeat Pepperdine (19-11, 10-8 WCC) in four sets.
The first seed in its section of the draw, Stanford now progresses to Round 2. The team will face LSU (16-13, 9-9 SEC), who came away with a gritty four-set victory over eighth-seeded Hawaii (22-7, 19-1 BWC) in Round 1, on Saturday.
In the opening set, Stanford appeared nearly untouchable, punctuated by redshirt junior outside Caitie Baird’s early 8-0 scoring run. Senior opposite Kendall Kipp played to her strengths as well, notably landing several lethal shots out of the back row. The Cardinal led 19-9 going into a Pepperdine timeout, and showed no signs of relenting. It was the freshman outside Elia Rubin who had the final word in set one, closing it out with a kill 25-11.
Baird struck hard and early once again, finding the back right corner to kick off set two. Several points later, she converted on an attack out of the back row to extend Stanford’s lead. But Pepperdine looked to be emerging from its first set shellshock, and began to put up more resistance. Perhaps sensing the danger ahead, Stanford went on a 3-0 scoring run into the media timeout. Kipp followed up shortly thereafter with an ace, and tooled the block to take the set 25-18 and give the Cardinal a 2-0 lead.
But the Waves emerged from the break between sets a completely different team. They were staying in rallies longer, attacking more effectively and forcing Stanford to work for every point. After failing to lead even once in the first two sets, Pepperdine went on a 5-0 scoring run to lead 12-8 and did not look back. Aided by Stanford errors and miscommunication, the Waves’ improvement in execution gave them the third set 25-18.
“I thought we let our foot off the gas a little bit,” said Stanford head coach Kevin Hambly.
In the break between sets three and four, Kipp added, she and her teammates focused on re-centering: “We started talking about [how] we can’t make this bigger than it is. It’s just a volleyball match. We’ve done that plenty of times in the Pac-12.”
The score stayed tight in the fourth set, until Stanford managed to find a narrow advantage. With the Waves pushing back and the Cardinal’s lead in danger, Baird and Kipp stepped up with well-timed kills. A 3-0 run on Baird’s serve built upon their lead. But the redshirt junior was adamant that her team as a whole made the difference.
“I think it was just focusing on the next point, knowing that my team had my back, and if I go up and take a rip, I know someone’s going to be there behind me,” Baird said of the group’s cohesiveness in set four. “They’re calling shots, they’re helping me out. I can’t do anything without them.”
Sophomore setter Kami Miner connected with redshirt junior middle McKenna Vicini to find match point. Along with feeding Baird and Kipp at the pins, Miner had great success on Friday with Vicini in the middle. The pair finished the night with 50 assists and a match-high attack percentage of .429, respectively.
Though Pepperdine saved one match point, a service error followed to end the set 25-20, the match 3-1 and the Waves’ season. The Cardinal’s execution in set four made the difference, according to Pepperdine head coach Scott Wong, and underscored what can make Stanford such a tricky opponent.
“Offensively, I haven’t really looked at the stats much but they consistently hit above .300,” Wong said. “And teams that are serving tough and also hitting in — and it sounds real simple — but they do it at a high level.”
Kipp finished Round One with 21 kills, while Baird had 19 and Rubin, 12. Vicini contributed seven blocks, while junior libero Elena Oglivie posted 17 digs. Rubin was close behind with 15 digs of her own.
Just as he emphasized at the start of the season, Hambly believes that execution and patience will be the key moving forward in the NCAA tournament.
“I have a lot of confidence in their ability to play volleyball and score points, and we had proven that we could play at a higher level,” he said of their third set slip on Friday, adding that they look to “play more with determination, and loose as opposed to frantic.”
Even so, Hambly says that he trusts his players. “They’ve played a lot of volleyball matches,” he joked, emphasizing that he has confidence in his team’s experience and preparation going into Saturday’s face-off against LSU.
First serve against the Tigers is scheduled for 6 p.m. PT in Maples Pavilion.