Charitsis: Important starts now

Dec. 7, 2022, 10:14 p.m.

Putting things into perspective

To paint the whole picture, one must go back three years, specifically to Dec. 21, 2019. Women’s volleyball head coach Kevin Hambly had a front-row seat when his team dominated Wisconsin to win the NCAA title in straight sets (25-16, 25-17, 25-20), their third in four years. He had every reason to be sad, though, as he confessed in his post-title match interview. You see, that day, he witnessed athletes in the likeness of outside hitter Kathryn Plummer ’19, libero Morgan Hentz ’19, setter Jenna Gray ’19, opposite Audriana Fitzmorris ’19 and middle blocker Madeleine Gates ’19 playing for the last time. The class of 2019 is arguably the best in Stanford women’s volleyball history.

That came with a price tag for the freshmen that year. Opposite hitter Kendall Kipp (now a senior), and middle blocker McKenna Vicini and outside hitter Caitie Baird (both now redshirt juniors) inevitably saw little action. Hambly had to rebuild a program from scratch. Not only did he lose most of his starting lineup, but he was left with inexperienced players to build a new team around. The only first-ballot athlete on the team left was outside hitter Meghan McClure ’20. As if that was not enough, COVID-19 hit. The 2020 season was pushed to Spring 2021 and Stanford finished unsurprisingly with a 2-8 record (many games were canceled). The 2021 season was essentially the program’s first regular season. Stanford fell in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Minnesota in straight sets and ended the season with a 19-11 record. Since then, however, the Cardinal has been making big steps forward every year, a testimony to the skill of the players and coaching staff.

The 2022 season

Coach Hambly recruited top players (e.g., outside hitter Elia Rubin and setter Kelly Belardi, both freshmen) who joined Kipp, Vicini, Baird, junior libero Elena Oglivie, junior middle blocker Annabelle Smith, sophomore middle blocker Sami Francis and sophomore defensive specialist Taylor Beaven. Adding new pieces like Rubin, who has been a regular starter from day one, made the team stronger, but there was still a long distance to cover. As if that was not enough, Francis has spent much of the season on the sidelines and not suited up, possibly due to an injury. Stanford faced its first ranked opponent on Aug. 30 when it beat Florida 3-2, but the real deal came in the next match.

The Cardinal hosted Texas, who has been ranked No. 1 for the entire season. The Longhorns beat Stanford in straight sets (25-18, 25-18, 25-20). A second-straight loss to Penn State dropped Stanford in the rankings. However, the next two matches against ranked then-No. 3 Minnesota and then-No. 2 Nebraska showed a glimpse that something special was brewing in The Farm. Stanford won both games on the road. But then another home loss to then-No. 3 Louisville and an away loss to Oregon a week later in straight sets proved that although Stanford had potential, it was still inconsistent. The loss to the Ducks in late September marked the beginning of an impressive run. A win streak followed: 20 straight victories through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. The road was bumpy at times, like against USC in Los Angeles when the team had to come back from two sets down to clinch the win.

The 2022 post-season

The Cardinal’s impressive win streak elevated them to No. 5 in the rankings, as hoped back in October. Stanford earned a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament and the No. 4 overall seed, meaning they’d potentially play at home in Maples Pavilion until the Final Four. The road ahead to Omaha is not easy. Next up, the Cardinal face Houston (30-3, 19-1 American) on Thursday and if they advance, either San Diego (29-1, 18-0 WCC) or Kentucky (22-7, 15-3 SEC) on Saturday.

Stanford’s biggest weakness

On paper, Stanford does not have the roster that other powerhouses have (e.g., Texas, Louisville, Wisconsin, etc.). Of course, some individual players are as good as any. Pac-12 Player of the Year Kipp, and All-Pac-12 players Rubin and Oglivie could be starters for any D-I team this season.

Stanford’s biggest strength

Although I mentioned three athletes that can make any starting lineup, focusing on individuals is a trap. The Cardinal are the epitome of the t-e-a-m. They have fun on and off the court as a team. They compete as a team. They win as a team. And volleyball is a team sport. Kevin Hambly and the coaching staff must be happy with the team’s progress so far. They started with a relatively young, inexperienced roster and witnessed them grow individually and, most importantly, improve as a team week in and week out.

Prediction

Stanford will likely battle it out with San Diego to punch the ticket to Omaha. San Diego is a very tough opponent with an exceptional record. I can see how a match like this can be decided in four or five sets. Hosting the Regionals is quite important. In familiar territory, Stanford can and hopefully will pull it off and make the trip to the Final Four. In the semifinal, a rematch with the Longhorns seems inevitable. This time, I expect a whole different ball game compared to the home loss in early September. Stanford has narrowed the gap substantially, but I still give Texas the upper hand to win in four or five sets. However, any team can be beaten on any given day. The only exception to the rule graduated from Stanford in 2019. Despite what happens, this team deserves nothing but praise. They seem to be having a blast on the floor, are fun to watch and spread joy and excitement to the crowd. Coach Hambly has built a cohesive unit of talented players who, as a team, feed off each other and overperform. Go Cardinal!

Charis is a EE Ph.D. student, although his research is in CS. If CS is his hobby, sports is his passion. Also loves music (especially live and preferably old rock), coffee, movies (though picky), and sports documentaries (hard to find any left to watch). Firm believer that the coach is the most important position in every team sport. A member of the sports section but not a journalist by any stretch of the imagination.

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