Next week, a California team will head to the NCAA women’s volleyball Final Four in Omaha, Neb. But it won’t be the Stanford Cardinal.
The San Diego Toreros (31-1, 18-0 WCC), seeded second, defeated top-seeded Stanford women’s volleyball (27-5, 19-1 Pac-12) in Maples Pavilion on Saturday night to end the Cardinal’s 21-match winning streak and with it, their promising postseason run. In a hard-fought five-set match, San Diego found its rhythm when it mattered most, closing out the deciding set with a 6-0 scoring run.
From the opening point, it was clear that San Diego posed a threat of the magnitude that Stanford had arguably not seen since its tricky preseason schedule, and the score stayed close early on. Sophomore setter Kami Miner’s offense heavily featured the pin hitters, namely redshirt junior outside Caitie Baird, senior opposite Kendall Kipp and freshman outside Elia Rubin. But sophomore middle blocker Sami Francis — in her second game back after a six-week absence — was in on the action as well, as was her fellow middle, redshirt junior McKenna Vicini, who converted on a quick set from Miner to take set one 25-19.
Leyla Blackwell opened set two for the Toreros with a kill. Once again, the scoreboard reflected the two teams’ 1-2 spots in pre-tournament seedings. This time it was San Diego that cemented a late set lead. After a timeout, Sanford and junior libero Elena Oglivie made a number of impressive gets and staged a comeback of sorts, but Blackwell still finished off the set 25-22 to even the match at 1-1.
A number of clutch plays helped the Cardinal storm to a commanding lead in the third set. From Miner getting a kill on a Torero overpass to Baird tooling the San Diego block to consecutive blocks from Kipp and Rubin, Stanford looked to have regained its momentum from the opening set. San Diego fought back by denying the Cardinal four set points. That was until Stanford gave the ball to Kipp. And the senior opposite delivered once again, sending the ball straight down to claim set three 25-19 and take a 2-1 lead.
The Toreros came out firing in set four, quickly taking an 8-3 advantage before Stanford battled back to close the gap. But up 22-20 and with chances to close out the match in four sets, Stanford could not finish the job. San Diego held on and ultimately went on a 3-0 scoring run to win the set 25-23 and force a fifth.
“We certainly had chances to win the fourth set,” said Stanford head coach Kevin Hambly. “And they made a couple plays, some kind of random things happened and next thing you know, you’re in a fifth set and it’s a battle.”
Early on in the deciding set, with the intensity in Maples only increasing and a spot in the Final Four on the line, Oglivie fell hard while chasing a ball in the back court. Despite a brief moment of concern from her fellow players and Stanford’s coaching staff, the libero returned to the court and continued to play. The Toreros ultimately found the lead 9-6, before the Cardinal earned three consecutive points to tie the score. A block from Francis evened the affair at nine-all.
Unfortunately for Stanford, that was the final point the team would record for the 2022 season. A 6-0 scoring run by San Diego gave them the set 15-9, the match 3-2 and booked the squad’s tickets to Omaha next week.
Despite the loss, Kipp finished with a match-high 24 kills. Rubin had 13 and Baird, 10. Francis made her presence known at the net in her second match back with nine blocks. Miner totaled 52 assists, while Oglivie anchored the Stanford backcourt with 21 digs.
While the entire starting lineup is expected to return in 2023, it will nonetheless take some time for the Cardinal to process the loss.
“…I think we were capable of more than what we did tonight,” Kipp said. “So it definitely stings, but we’re ready to get back in the gym as soon as we’re back and fight for next year.”
Hambly agreed. “[We] just didn’t want the season to end, and just really loved this group and really loved how hard they worked all year,” he said. “I wish we could have been better for them, so we could still be playing next week.”
However, Hambly believes that this group’s peak is still ahead of them. “We’ll do what we can to get there, and try to get back and put ourselves in this situation again next year,” he said. They already improved their result from 2021, when the team bowed out in the second round of the tournament.
San Diego will now face a formidable matchup with top-ranked Texas (26-1, 15-1 Big 12) on Thursday, Dec. 15. The winner will earn the right to play for an NCAA Championship.