Heart rates rose late that night throughout the Target Center in Minneapolis last December.
Stanford led 14-12 in the fifth set of the NCAA title match in what had been nothing short of a volleyball slugfest.
Nebraska’s Mikaela Foecke hit a bomb that Morgan Hentz dug with aplomb. And then Meghan McClure flew out of the back row, attacked Jenna Gray’s set, it went off the block of Lauren Stivrins to the floor, and Stanford melted into a dogpile, celebrating another NCAA championship.
But then … Nebraska coach John Cook pulled out his challenge card.
Hold everything …
The 15-12 result could have been changed to 14-13 had McClure stepped on the 10-foot line when she took off.
“We were celebrating and I was so overjoyed I can’t even describe the emotions I was feeling,” McClure recalled. “And then John Cook challenges the play.”
Stanford coach Kevin Hambly, who had already done a group hug with his assistants, quickly got his team’s attention. Re-focus.
McClure was visibly upset.
“And I’ve never had more anxiety in my life than that moment,” McClure said. “I was like, ‘Please, please, don’t take this point away.’ I don’t know how we go from celebrating on the ground to playing another match point. And it had been such a long and stressful game.
“There was so much relief and then there was so much stress in the anticipation that we might not actually have the point.
“And then we won it again and it was just so exciting and I had the best night celebrating with my wonderful teammates who I love so much. And with my family and friends. But it was a bit of a roller-coaster.”
Stanford won it all in 2016 when the core four — Kathryn Plummer, Morgan Hentz, Audriana Fitzmorris and Gray — were freshmen. Then in 2017, McClure’s freshman year, the Cardinal lost in five to Florida in the NCAA national semifinals.
Last season, with McClure repeating as a VolleyballMag.com honorable mention All-American, the Cardinal repeated, drama and all. Stanford lost just once, at BYU on the last day of August, before going an incredible 20-0 in the Pac-12. In the NCAA Tournament, it swept Alabama State, Loyola Marymount, beat Washington State and Penn State in four, and then swept that same BYU team in the national semifinals.
Fewer championship matches have been more exciting as Stanford beat defending-champion Nebraska 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12.
There was a sense of relief.
“I think so,” McClure said. “I think joy, definitely, for the entirety of the season was more what I felt at the end, but there was relief after that five-set match. I had the best time last season and I feel like we were really confident in ourselves and it was unlike any team I’d played with before.”
“But that last match, that was the most stressful match I’ve ever been a part of. So after that it was definitely relief.”
This season, of course, is different. Stanford won the Pac-12 again, going 18-2 in the conference, and is 24-4 overall. The Cardinal played a brutal pre-conference schedule, and the Pac-12 season was tougher when Plummer, the 2018 VolleyballMag.com national player of the year, went out with a hip injury. The other outside hitter, 6-5 freshman Kendall Kipp, was injured, too.
But never fear, because like always, Stanford had McClure.
From the time she arrived on The Farm, McClure simply finds a way to stay on the court. She doesn’t jump the highest, doesn’t hit the hardest — although she can bring it — but the 6-footer from Rancho Santa Margarita, California, always seems to come through.
“She’s impossible to keep off the floor. She does so many little things that not every player is capable of doing,” Hambly said. “She cleans up so much for us. You can look at her and see that she’s 6-foot and people are serving a lot of balls at her and think she’s a liability for us, but she hit .270 last year and this year she sprained her ankle unfortunately but still hit over .230.
“I just think she’s just one of the more underrated players in the country and we know her value.”
Indeed, on a team with a roster like Stanford’s, it’s easy to forget about McClure. Even this year, she had to fight for her job against Kipp. Kipp is having a strong season but was injured and while ready to come back, can’t break the lineup, especially not with Stanford on an 11-match winning streak.
“Kendall Kipp is a really talented athlete who’s going to have a tremendous career,” Hambly said. “There’s no doubt about that, that she’s going to be a great player for us.”
Kipp has played in 35 fewer sets than McClure, has a higher kills per set average (2.55), but is hitting slightly less (.223) and can’t handle the ball anything like McClure.
When McClure was recovering from her ankle sprain, Hambly said it was as impressive that she didn’t miss any matches, but hardly practiced for more than two weeks.
McClure, Hambly said simply, “is a pro. She knows how to play. She’s just a great volleyball player.”
She said that her club, Laguna Beach, made her a complete player and for that she’s grateful.
“When I was in club my coaches really, really emphasized being an all-around player, being someone who can have the shots and be versatile on the front row, but also has a great foundation in the back row. I’ve been lucky that Kevin and all my coaches have developed me as a whole player, not just a front-row player or a back-row player.
“I think that’s something that I always bring to the team, that I can be consistent in all facets of my play and I can be someone who’s on the court at all times.”
McClure is also upbeat and high energy.
“She’s a really positive human being and brings that all the time to everybody around her,” Hambly said. “It’s really fun to be around.”
McClure said she always wanted to play at Stanford.
“Stanford’s been kind of the dream since I was 5 or 6. I’m not gonna lie, I always wanted to come to Stanford,” McClure said. “I put all my eggs in one basket. I would have been disappointed had I gone anywhere else.
“I really love school. I love the campus and it seemed like the perfect fit for me, basically forever.”
But her early success surprised her.
“I had no expectation of playing my freshman year,” McClure said. “Stanford had just won the national championship and I was on the court looking around and it was like, ‘What am I doing? They’re all amazing and they’re All-Americans,’ and here I am the 6-foot undersized freshman wondering what am I doing here.
“But I definitely grew that year so much and it was so formative for me to be able to play with them and get that experience, especially in the final four.”
Stanford opens NCAA play Friday against Summit League-champion Denver. The winner gets the Cal Poly-Georgia winner. Should Stanford go 2-0, the Cardinal, seeded third overall in the tournament, gets to play at home again the next weekend for the NCAA regional.
“The tournament is an interesting time,” McClure said. “There are always upsets and great games. I like to think that our team has been really good in the tournament and we’ve started peaking in the tournament.
“My freshman year we were great but we weren’t a team all the time. We were kind of individuals. Last year we were the team. We were better together.
“And that’s what I hope what we do this year. We’ve started hitting our stride by being not the best individuals, but being the best team. I hope we stick together and play for each other, because when we do I don’t think there’s anyone who can beat us.”
No matter what happens, this will be the end of the line for the incredible senior class.
“I love playing at Stanford and being able to play with the best of the best. I’ve played with people who are generational talents,” McClure said.
“It’s fun just to be their teammates. It’s hard not to be happy and joyful when you’re playing with people who are going to go down in history as the best volleyball players to ever come through college athletics.
“I’ve had a really fun time getting to be their teammate and I’m so grateful for that.”