AUSTIN, Texas — Overpowering outside Kathryn Plummer is the early season choice for national player of the year.
Libero Morgan Hentz picks up balls that are rocketed her way with aplomb, causing one coach to say simply, “It’s stupid to hit at her.”
Setter Jenna Gray is running an offense that, when hitting on all cylinders, is simply unstoppable.
And the fourth member of the Stanford junior class, right-side Audriana Fitzmorris, has taken on a new role and simply been fabulous.
And that’s all in part because the middles, senior Tami Alade, the Canadian who didn’t even start playing volleyball until her junior year of high school, and freshman cat lover Holly Campbell, the honoree, if you will on this trip to Texas, are averaging three blocks and three and a half kills a set between them.
Lost in all that might be sophomore Meghan McClure, the other outside, and defensive specialist Kate Formico, and, well, you get the idea. Stanford, 7-1 and coming off that Tuesday-night sweep of Texas, is loaded.
So far this has been a fun trip, from having dinner with Campbell’s family on Wednesday night to practice and kayaking on Thursday.
“It’s like two worlds colliding,” Campbell said.
The second-ranked Cardinal have just one loss, to now top-ranked and unbeaten BYU, and since that five-set defeat have won five in a row, four by sweeps, losing just one set in last Sunday’s win over then-No. 1 Minnesota.
In other words, Stanford is on a roll heading into this rematch with No. 3 Texas. The first serve is at 8 p.m. Central and it can be seen on the Longhorn Network.
“This year just feels more comfortable,” Alade said. “We’ve finally gotten into a rhythm and I think we trust each other a lot more and if one person’s not having a game, we can rely on a bit more on other people than in other years.”
“We have a good group of girls,” said the 6-foot-6 Fitzmorris, who is averaging 1.07 blocks per set and has 83 kills (3.07/set) while hitting .415.
Fitzmorris and Gray were club and high school teammates on the Kansas side of suburban Kansas City — this is their seventh year together — and, along with Plummer and Hentz, won the NCAA title as freshmen.
Last year, the Cardinal lost in the national semifinals.
“Each year has been very different,” Fitzmorris said.
Stanford set up for this season, one expected to be special, with a European trip last spring where the Cardinal not only played tourist but also practiced hard. What’s more, the two freshmen, Campbell and Mackenzie Fidelak were part of it.
Fitzmorris was a middle her first two seasons. And then last spring coach Kevin Hambly asked her to move to the right side, where 6-8 Merete Lutz — who also alternated as a middle —finished her career.
“It’s been a journey,” Fitzmorris said with a laugh. “I really do appreciate the process of learning and I love in college volleyball how much film you watch, how you get to talk to your coaches about technique. I really like that part of the game.
“The switch from middle to right side was difficult, for sure. It was a lot of re-learning different things, like timing, block setup for closing, all that jazz,” Fitzmorris said.
“It was a position Kevin said he thought I’d be great at and it would be good for our team. I was thankful for my middle experience, because it’s helped me be a better right side, knowing what our middles are going through.”
It’s not lost on their teammates what those juniors mean. From the outside looking in, you certainly have to recognize them
“It’s the ‘core four,’ those four and the others. This is their third year and they came in and just lit up the volleyball world,” McClure said. “So it’s hard to look at them and not see them as a unit that has been working together the past three years, and the other three or four of us as separate, but on the court it doesn’t feel that way.”
McClure gave a lot of credit to both Lutz and that core four for making sure it was all for one and one for all.
A perfect example might have been the team dinner at Campbell’s home. Which, the product of Westlake High School — where her two younger sisters also play volleyball — and Austin Juniors was quick to point out, meant a reunion with her three cats.
“I’m really excited. We went to my house and I got to see my family and I’m really excited to see all my friends who to go UT and everyone from Austin Juniors,” Campbell said. “It’s fun.”
Having 4,000-plus root against you will be different, although her mother, Troye, who played basketball for Navy, will see her play in college for the first time.
The 6-4 Campbell knows what a special position she’s in.
“Sometimes it still feels too good to be true, that I’m playing with all these amazing players,” Campbell said.
“Everyone on our team is so good and that has really helped me out. Everyone is super helpful and so nice and when I make freshman mistakes they’re always trying to help me learn and get better.
“It’s nice because there’s a little wiggle room to make errors and learn from them and get better.”
McClure, the 6-foot outside from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., was in a similar spot last year.
She’s averaging 2.89 kills and is also third on the team in digs (1.81/set). She has 15 blocks. McClure said a big key to becoming a better player is relaxing on the court.
“I’m a tense person and I got very stressed at the beginning of last year,” said McClure, sporting a bandage on her chin from taking a fall week while diving for a ball. “I’m still working through that, not getting stressed, but as the season went on I got looser and more confident in my play and happier when I play, which is when I play best.”
Certainly when December gets here, Stanford will be in the hunt to get back to the final four.
“A lot of things will have to fall into place, but I think that our teamwork can hopefully put us over the edge,” Fitzmorris said. “We have great chemistry, we know each other really well, and we’re very driven and hard-working.
“I think a lot can be said for a team that comes together in times that are difficult. If we get to that point, we can come together and solve things as a team and that shows on the court, that will be that determining factor.”
Alade pondered the idea of winning it all.
“I want to say because we’re gonna be the best team,” she said. “I don’t think we’re quite there right now, but I think we’re gonna be the best team when it matters the most.
“It’s funny, but I like to watch a lot of professional sports and they talk a lot about the difference between a playoff athlete and a regular-season athlete. Our team, because we’ve been to the final four and the national championships so often I think we understand at this point what it takes to play well in those moments.”