Core four “better in every aspect” for deep, versatile No. 1 Stanford

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Stanford-Cardinal-NCAA volleyball
Stanford celebrates its 2016 NCAA title win/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Stanford won the 2016 NCAA championship with four freshmen.

Last year, the Cardinal made it to the national semifinals.

And this year, juniors Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz, Kathryn Plummer and Audriana Fitzmorris are primed to make a run again.

“That’s a good base for us to build upon, those four guys,” second-year Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said last week after just a few practices with the Cardinal.

“And they’ve gotten better in every aspect.”

That’s to get the attention of the Pac-12 for sure and likely the rest of the nation. After all, Stanford was a strong No. 1 in the AVCA preseason coaches poll. For that matter, the Cardinal went 30-4 last year, 19-1 in the Pac-12.

Kevin Hambly

“That’s the reason we’re No. 1, because of those four. That core,” Hambly said. “And we have more depth than we’ve had, more depth than we’ve had last year, either with kids who have developed or come in.”

Plummer, the 6-foot-6 outside who also moves seamlessly to the right side, was the 2017 AVCA player of the year and a first-team All-American for VolleyballMag.com, where she was also in strong consideration as the top player.

Hentz is simply a fantastic libero, Gray has to be considered among the top setters in the college game, and Fitzmorris, also 6-6, is going to prove her versatility, too. She’s been a middle, but will move to the right side.

“I feel like we’re putting her someplace where she’s more comfortable, which is on a pin,” Hambly said. “She’s a really good middle blocker, but she seems more comfortable on the pin so we’ll be able to put her out there.”

As a freshman, Fitzmorris was second middle to the 2016 VolleyballMag.com national player of the year, Inky Ajanaku. Last year, Tami Alade moved into Ajanaku’s spot. This year, Hambly said, the 6-2 senior Alade will be one middle and 6-4 senior Courtney Bowen and impressive 6-4 freshman Holly Campbell will compete for the other spot.

The other outside hitter might be a battle between 6-2 sophomore Michaela Keefe and 6-foot sophomore Meghan McClure, who held the job last season.

“O’Keefe wasn’t ready last year, so it’s nice to have a little competition there,” Hambly said. “We didn’t have that option last year, so I’m hoping O’Keefe will continue to develop and hold up.”

If nothing else, Stanford has perhaps the tallest coach in Hambly, who is 6-7, and certainly the tallest team.

“We’re huge,” he said.”

And it’s not just the indoor women’s team. As an aside, Stanford beach coach Andrew Fuller is 6-10.

Stanford opens the season Friday in Washington, D.C., when the Cardinal play perennial Patriot League winner American and the MEAC defending-champion Howard.

The second weekend, Stanford goes to BYU to play the Cougars, Wichita State and West Virginia, before coming home September 7-8 to face Penn State and Minnesota.

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