Stanford hears echos from the past and present as it tries to go back-to-back

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Stanford volleyball 12/19/2019-Morgan Hentz
Stanford's Morgan Hentz lays out for a dig against Minnesota/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

PITTSBURGH – Jenna Gray started it. And then Morgan Hentz echoed “everything Jenna said,” and Kathryn Plummer shrugged and laughed and said that “I echo everything you just said.”

They were asked about what it’s like to be key figures in yet another historic year in an historic Stanford volleyball program, one that now finds itself, after a convincing 25-19, 25-22, 25-22 win over Minnesota, its 16th consecutive victory, in the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship title match for the second straight season.

“It’s definitely an honor,” said Gray, the Cardinal’s setter who finished with 41 assists and five kills without a single error. “And having those pictures up in our locker room, I remember coming on visits, and then even to this day we still go through and we look at those pictures and we look at those players there every single time. And especially there’s the trophies, and every time we go to the final four, people going back to back.”

The Most Outstanding Player from the 1996 NCAA championship team, Kerri Walsh Jennings, was there, just two rows off the court, watching the current iteration of the program. Walsh Jennings was on the last Stanford team to go back-to-back, winning in 1996 and ’97. And now this 2019 roster, one no doubt replete with future Olympians, can put itself in a similarly rarified air.

Not that they’re thinking about that. Not yet.

“Yeah, we’ve had a lot of success,” said Plummer, who was magnificent on Thursday evening, killing 26 balls on 51 attempts. “Yes, Stanford the program has had a lot of success, but we’re focused on one game at a time because if we focus too far ahead or on all that success, then we get caught up in it and it makes it bigger than it is.

“It’s just another volleyball game. We talked a lot about that. Just focusing on the game instead of all the outside noise and all the history of our program and just play it game by game and point by point.”

Those points came in flurries and bunches on Thursday, mostly from the heavy right hand of the 6-foot-6 Plummer. She was responsible for nearly half the Cardinal’s kills, and so effective was she that Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon joked afterwards that “even if she was on the bench, I’m sure she still would kill it from over there. It was tough.”

Yes, this Plummer-led Stanford team is good. But “believe it or not,” McCutcheon said, “we beat them earlier this year.”

Indeed, his Gophers took it to the Cardinal back in September, upsetting them 3-1 at Penn State. Plummer got her numbers then, too, finishing with 20 kills on 55 attempts. But this is a different Stanford team than the one McCutcheon and the Gophers saw in September. It’s grittier, scrappier.

When Plummer went out with an injury through the bulk of the middle of the season, the Cardinal could no longer rely on the two-time AVCA National Player of the Year when they were in a pinch. Stanford went through not necessarily an identity crisis, but certainly an identity shift.

“It really forced all players on our team to step up and help fill in some of the roles that Kathryn has definitely succeeded immensely in,” Hentz said.

Hentz, the senior libero, was one of those players. Stanford coach Kevin Hambly noted Minnesota’s hitting percentage, then and now. In September, the Gophers hit .247; Stanford hit .185.

“I think,” he said, “those numbers are flipped.”

They were better than flipped. On the back of Hentz’s 23 digs and a team 10.5 blocks, Stanford held Minnesota to hitting .164 on Thursday, while the Cardinal hit .325.

“When Kathryn was out, we had to redefine ourselves as more of a defensive transition team to win matches, which they did an excellent job of,” Hambly said. “We really committed to being better on defense. I think we’ve carried that over once we got Kathryn back, which has been huge. I think it was a little bit of a blessing in disguise. We’re committed to that.”

No team on Thursday night hit better than the Cardinal. And no team hit worse than the Cardinal’s opponent. They were both the best offensive and defensive team in Pittsburgh.

“I think tonight they were really clean,” McCutcheon said. “And I thought we had some chances certainly in the second to maybe pull out a set here, and then it’s hard to know. I think in our experience with most teams, if you can get them to start thinking a little bit, then it gets a little tougher. But they were just swinging away, and they’re making a lot of really good plays.

“So, yeah, they’re playing really well. And, again, hats off to them. If they’re going to play like this tomorrow or in two days’ time, they’ll be tough to beat. We probably weren’t able to exert enough pressure on them to get them to come back down to earth.”

There is but one team left who can bring Stanford down to earth. That’s Wisconsin, who beat top-seeded Baylor, 3-1, in the earlier semifinal. After a day off on Friday, they’ll meet Saturday and Stanford will have a chance to do something it hasn’t done since 1996 and ’97: Win back to back titles, becoming a team that the next generation of Cardinal will look at in the hallways.

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