“ … as much as I wanted to be upset about it, I couldn’t.
“I love this sport. I love this team. And it’s always something that’s going to make me happy. So I had a new role to fill.”
In sports, like life, things simply don’t go as planned.
No one knows that better than Stanford senior Kelsey Humphreys, who has become the poster child for rolling with the punches and staying a good teammate. And last Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin, it all paid off in one great evening for Humphreys and her Cardinal teammates as they advanced to the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship and will play Minnesota in Thursday’s national semifinals.
It was a match in which Stanford upset the home team 18-25, 24-26, 25-21, 25-21, 15-9 and while Humphreys’ stat line might not seem like much, there was a lot more to it than meets the eye. She is a serving and defensive specialist who goes in for 6-foot-8 right side Merete Lutz. Against Wisconsin, Humphreys had two assists, an ace, four digs and her first block of the season, but more on that later.
“When you watched her this weekend she had remarkable positive energy,” coach John Dunning said. “Always does.”
Stanford heads into Thursday 25-7 and winners of eight in a row and 14 of 15. But there was a time a couple of months ago when Stanford, a team relying heavily on four freshmen, was trying to figure it out.
The Cardinal lost to visiting Arizona on October 14 to fall to 10-5 overall and 4-3 in the Pac-12 and looked nothing like a team that would challenge for the national championship.
But it was during that match when coach John Dunning switched to a 5-1, turning his offense over to freshman Jenna Gray.
That meant that Humphreys was no longer going to set. And understand that she had waited three years for the chance, all that time waiting for Madi Bugg to graduate, and finally this season got the job.
She was big time coming out of Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, Calif. But as a freshman, Humphreys played in just 17 sets.
“I knew I was coming into Stanford behind a really great and experienced setter. I played with and across the net from her in club and at USA tryouts, so that was something I was aware of when I committed. I wanted to a part of the Stanford volleyball program and to play for these coaches and to play for a program that has so much history and to play with people who would make me better every day and who would challenge me.
“I knew that I was going to have to fight and I was going to have to work hard every day in practice and I don’t regret any of that.”
Her sophomore year, 2014, Stanford made it all the way to the national semifinals, losing to eventual-champion Penn State in the semifinals.
“I just wanted to find a way onto the court and to be able to contribute any way I could. That meant working on my defense in practice every single day and getting a tougher serve. And I got on the court.”
That season Humphreys got to set some and often served and played defense. In the match against Penn State she played in all four sets and had an ace and four digs.
“I think that more so than making me grow as a player, I grew as a person going from the position of being the starter and being on the court all the time to playing a different role on a team,” Humphreys said. “And I grew into that role and eventually earned my way onto the court in a different capacity and was able to contribute. And I think that’s something I got through playing club, but also from my parents.
“They always made it of utmost importance to remain humble and to appreciate where you are and never give up. Something my mom has always said to me is that there’s always going to be someone better than you, so you have to continue to train and work hard every single day.”
So that’s what she did, working hard as a server and DS in 2015 playing in early every set, all the while knowing that if things went well in 2016, she’d finally get to set.
This might be a good time to mention that her parents, especially her mom, are not just any volleyball parents. Her dad, Brad, played football at Stanford. And her mom, the former Wendy Rush, is one of the greatest volleyball players in Stanford history. She was a four-time All-American setter from 1984-87, took the Cardinal to the final four all four years, is in the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame, and played on the national team for a couple of years.
“What’s unique about my mom’s and my relationship is that there was no pressure for me to play volleyball,” Kelsey said. “That was my decision. There was no pressure to go to Stanford. That was also my decision. And this entire season all she can keep saying is, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ And that affirmation has been a big thing for me because I know how amazing of a player she was. I see her (plaque) in my locker room every day. Four-time All-American.”’
From the outside looking in, you had to imagine that made it even harder not to set and be a DS.
“Through it all, she was a great teammate and a great person on the bench in games,” Dunning said.
And so 2016 began with so many unknowns for Stanford, starting with a highly touted freshman class that included 6-foot-6 outside Kathryn Plummer, 6-6 middle Audriana Fitzmorris, another setter in Jenna Gray, and libero Morgan Hentz. There was also the return of the team’s only other senior, All-American middle Inky Ajanaku, who missed all of 2015 recovering from a knee injury. And the unknowns continued as the season began, as sophomore All-American Hayley Hodson got hurt and left school and yet another freshman, 6-2 Michaela Keefe who replaced her, was injured and lost for the season.
And Stanford, which early on beat among others Minnesota and Penn State, struggled.
“Kelsey worked hard to play this year and the best thing to do to start the season was include her in our setting and we had a chance to be very good that way,” Dunning said. “But then we didn’t have the same personnel to make that work.
“We had to make a change and we did it in the middle of a match. We did it without practicing it and I’m not a person to make changes without practicing. So for us to change it during a middle of a match was hard on her because there was no way to prep for it. But we weren’t playing well enough.
“It wasn’t her fault, it was the sum of things.”
After losing to Arizona, the next night Stanford swept Arizona State. Then it lost to UCLA the next time out before starting the aforementioned streak.
In between was a team meeting with an explanation.
“I met with her after the team meeting and she could barely talk to me,” Dunning said. She was angry, frustrated, knew what it meant, didn’t want to go through that again. This was a kid who had been a really good teammate and openly cheering for everyone all the time. It was hard.”
“It broke my heart. It was brutal. And there was really nothing that we could talk about.”
Dunning recalled Humphreys saying to him that he had no idea how she felt.
“And I told her, ‘Kelsey, actually I do. I had this happen as an athlete, I have daughters who had it happen. I’ve coached a lot of people where this happened. It doesn’t mean I know exactly how you feel, but I do know. And there’s nothing that I can say that will help except that we need you and it’s going to be different.’
“She walked away and I didn’t blame her.”
Humphreys basically thinks she gave herself a kick in the butt.
“It came down to my own decision on how I was gonna finish out my career with the program and how I wanted to be remembered as a teammate.”
Dunning also credited Ajanaku for counseling Humphreys.
“We care about her and I care about her,” Dunning said. “Everybody knew it was going to be hard. And nobody holds it against you when you’re angry.”
“Working for three years to get into that spot and then not getting it at the end was heartbreaking at first,” Humphreys admitted.
“And it took me a few days. And then I walked into practice that Monday after the lineup change and was still not very happy and as soon as I got on the court with my teammates, as much as I wanted to be upset about it, I couldn’t.
“I love this sport. I love this team. And it’s always something that’s going to make me happy. So I had a new role to fill. I was playing the same amount of rotations as I was before. Three rotations and going in for our opposite, I just had a different focus. And in the end, as much as I want to set and as much as I want to be in for six rotations, I am an athlete and I am a competitor and I want to win. And we’re winning. For my team, this is what’s best and that’s really all I have to keep thinking about. It’s really paying off.”
To wit, this season Humphreys, who will graduate in June with a degree in science technology and society, which she described as a combination of art, design and business, has played in all 121 sets. She has 209 digs — second only to Hentz — and 14 aces. She also has one kill, which came on a dig that went back over the net and fell to the floor. And there’s that one block, but not yet.
First those freshmen.
“They are such a gift. I mean, they are the biggest goofballs I have ever met,” Humphreys said. “They really bring so much energy and really lighten the mood off the court and on the court, they have this maturity that I have not seen or played with before as freshmen. It was so unexpected, but I am so thankful every day that I get to play with these girls.”
Against Wisconsin, for example, Ajanaku, the old lady of the team, was spectacular as she led with 20 kills, hitting .447, and 11 blocks, two solo. But Plummer had 12 kills and 10 digs, Gray had 57 assists and six blocks, one solo, Fitzmorris had 10 kills and hit .333 and some of Hentz’s 30 digs were phenomenal.
“This season has been a roller coaster,” Ajanaku said. “We’ve had to go through a lot, and I’ve had to go through a lot, and I think that’s kind of what bonded our team is that we were learning to trust ourselves at the same time I was ready to trust myself again. And we were kind of on that same path together with the freshmen.”
And now they’re in the national semifinals.
“Every year you want to go to the final four, but for your senior year it feels that much more special,” Humphreys said. “And we’ve been here once before and we’re ready to take it for our senior year. Everyone else on the team keeps saying they want to do it for us, but I say no, we’re doing it for everyone. We’re doing it for each other.”
OK, time for the block.
Stanford lost those first two sets against Wisconsin, won the third, and Humphreys started in the back row to start the fourth set.
On the side out Lutz was to go in for Humphreys. But Lutz was really involved in the bench celebration of the point, a kill by Gray.
“We side out right away and I’m waiting on the 10-foot line and it’s so loud in this gym and I’m screaming her name and she has just no idea. And I’m looking at the ref yelling, ‘Sub! Sub! Sub!’ but then the whistle blows and I run over to the net.”
At which point Humphreys told Ajanaku and Plummer she would get to the right side. Plummer told her stay left and it wasn’t lost on Wisconsin All-American setter Lauren Carlini. Understand that Humphreys is 6 feet tall with pretty good hops.
“All I could think about was what John had been telling the left-side blockers the entire time, get outside of her jump in and that’s exactly what I did. And I got the block and just flipped out.”
She was laughing just recounting the story.
“Honestly, it shocked me. How many times does the person forget to sub in and the DS is blocking front row and I ended up blocking on the left. I’d never blocked on that side in my life.”
“It was the only time I’ve taken someone out right after getting a stuff block,” Dunning said.
“The whole team was going nuts,” Humphreys said. “The coaches were going nuts. And I subbed and I was still freaking out for three or four points. The elite eight, I’m in the front row and I get a stuff block. It’s my first block of the year. It was pretty incredible and in that moment for my team, it was the start of the fourth game and we knew were fighting for it and weren’t going to give it up.”
Which was way better than what could have been had she decided to mail it in after losing her setting spot two months ago.
She heard from plenty of people who told her she deserved better.
“And at times I kind of bought into that and then I shut off those voices in my head because this is bigger than one player on the court.”
It was time for a stern look in the mirror.
“I kind of slapped myself in the face and said, ‘All right, let’s go. Time to get better at something new if you’re going to contribute in a different way.’ And I really took ownership of that and never looked back.”
No, she won’t be an All-American like her mom. But what a great ending to a career.
“Even my mom joked, ‘I would not have handled it like this.’
“Every day she tells me how proud she is,” Humphreys said. “And after (we won Saturday), I think she was was more excited than some of the girls on the team.”
Humphreys laughed. “As a player at Stanford she was in four final fours and went to three national championships (matches) and never won, so she keeps telling me to bring one home for the family.”