The battle cry all season for San Diego, the West Coast Conference champion that seemingly was the Rodney Dangerfield of NCAA volleyball, was simply, “Why not us?”
And why not, indeed.
Saturday night, the Toreros stunned Pac-12 champion Stanford on its home court in the NCAA Tournament regional final to cap a wild day of volleyball. San Diego (31-1) not only rallied from a 2-1 deficit to win its 28th match in a row, the Toreros are also in the national semifinals for the first time.
“A fifth set is kind of what you live for,” said San Diego graduate-student setter Gabby Blossom, the fiery team leader who transferred from Penn State. “The fact that we won that in five, I don’t know, I’m still trying to come down from the high and come up with words. It was just so fun and these are the games that you dream of as a little girl and the fact that we just won it is pretty huge.”
San Diego will play Texas, which beat Ohio State, while ACC co-champions Louisville and Pittsburgh square off for the third time this season. It means there will be a new champion, at the least, for the first time in 10 years. Texas won it all in 2012 and the other three programs have never won the NCAA title.
San Diego, which many argued should have been a top-four seed and would have been playing this match at home if it was, certainly proved its worth with the 19-25, 25-22, 19-25, 25-23, 15-9 victory.
“This is a dream,” veteran San Diego coach Jen Petrie said.
San Diego, which hit .283, got 20 kills from Katie Lukes, who had 11 digs and a block. Grace Frohling had 18 kills, hit .308, and had an assist, an ace, two digs and four blocks. Breana Edwards had 18 kills, a dig and seven blocks. Leyla Blackwell had 14 kills with no errors in 24 attacks to hit .583 and had a dig and seven blocks. Blossom had 64 assists, seven digs and two blocks, and Annie Benbow had 18 digs and six assists.
Blossom said that going to any fifth set “is always crazy, no matter what’s at stake, but for a chance to go to the final four is just madness. We kept coming into timeouts and our coaches were saying, ‘Take a breath, take a breath.’ Because sometimes you can get too excited. We just stayed grounded and covered in big points.”
“It was super intense but we did a really good job of leveling out,” Frohling said. “We love to play like that. We did the right things at the right time and pulled it out.”
“I have no words right now for the emotion that is outpouring from our team, from our fans, from our locker room, from the administration to our staff,” Petrie said. “It was such a team win. It was a battle. An absolute battle and they never, never gave up on it.
“Such a testament to their tenacity, their resilience, their bravery, just outstanding.
“And Stanford is just such an excellent team.”
Stanford (27-5), which won three titles in four years, the last in 2019, was the No. 4 seed in the tournament and San Diego the No. 5. The Cardinal had been riding a 21-match winning streak that saw them run away with the Pac-12. But against San Diego, Stanford hit .253, 40 percentage points below its average.
“Congratulations to San Diego,” Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. “They played great, they understood how to win. They played when it mattered the most. I’m happy for Jen to take her program to a place they haven’t been before.
“I thought it was a great match. We certainly had chances to win in the fourth set.”
Kendall Kipp led with 224 kills and had five digs and six blocks. Sami Francis had seven kills, hit .385 and had nine blocks. Elia Rubin had 13 kills, two aces, 10 digs and four blocks, and Caitie Baird had 10 kills, an assist, an ace, seven digs and three blocks, one solo. Elena Oglivie had 22 digs, four assists and two aces.
While San Diego had nine kills in the fifth set and hit .294, Stanford hit .000 with three kills, all by Rubin.
“I think we were capable of more than what we did tonight,” Kipp said. “It definitely stings.”
Everyone returns for Stanford.