PALO ALTO, Calif. They put together such gatherings to test themselves and see who’s who and what’s what. And after No. 2 Stanford rallied past No. 1 Penn State on Friday night, one could only wonder what it meant.
Since Stanford last won an NCAA women’s volleyball championship, it’s been Penn State’s world. Titles in 2007, 08, 09, 10, and, of course, last year. A gripping five-set victory over the Cardinal last December propelled Penn State into the final four, 22-25, 25-22, 28-26, 18-25, 15-11. It was nothing short of a volleyball spike to the heart of the Cardinal.
So two loaded teams faced off on Stanford’s home court in just the second weekend of the season. The final: Stanford won, 18-25, 25-23, 25-22, 16-25, 15-10. And after the first set it looked like it was going to go quickly.
It felt good, Stanford junior setter Madi Bugg said. It felt really good.
These are two programs with history, Stanford junior Brittany Howard said. Personally, the [previous] two matches Ive played with them have gone five and weve lost. So when it came down to game five, we looked around and said weve been here before and we can do this.
We were down so bad in that fourth game and came back with fire and intensity in the fifth game to win.
It’s nice to see where we stand and what we can get better at, Stanford senior opposite Morgan Boukather said. We brought out the weaknesses in each other [and] now we know what to practice for.
The numbers were interesting. Penn State hit .243; Stanford .237. But this Stanford team had a different look. For example, 6-foot-8 redshirt-freshman Merete Lutz altered more than her share of shots in the middle and had four blocks. And Boukather, who played so much her first two years but then mostly watched last year, is back with a vengeance. She had a team-high 15 kills, hit .353, and had four blocks.
She’s been waiting to step up and she’s doing a good job, Stanford coach John Dunning said of the Newport Beach native.
Ive been around for a while. You learn from your experiences, Boukather said.
She was particularly sharp in the second set gathering four of her kills when it sure looked like Stanford was going down in three.
The important thing is our team learned is that we can ride out a match, which is something that has taken us a long time to get to, said Bugg, who had four kills and three blocks herself And Im really proud of that.
Junior All-American middle Inky Ajanaku had 14 kills, hit .383, and collected four blocks. Or, as 36th-year Penn State coach Russ Rose said, If the game’s close, Inky can win it. No shocker there.
Indeed, she had three of her kills on four attempts with no errors in the fifth set,
The point of preseason and the games we play is to learn a lot. We have a lot of room for improvement, Ajanaku said. It wasnt a great game on either side of the net.
Dunning knows it’s September.
Im sure for both of us, and Im sure Russ feels the same way, what it means is that we both learned a lot, Dunning said. He has a really young team and he just found out a lot about his team. We have a team that isnt as young but we still found out a lot about each other.
Some of the things we did since the start of fall camp did not work tonight at all. So weve got to go back to the drawing board and figure out what the next thing is.
Dunning, of course, was glad his team was resilient.
Theyre really physical and make you make mistakes, Dunning said. The end of game two was critical [when Stanford led only 20-19 before pulling away]. They could have taken that, but they made some mistakes and we ended up kind of stealing it. Once in a while you get lucky like that, but we also stood up and didnt go away.
Penn State had 29 hitting errors and 14 service errors, six from senior setter Micha Hancock, the MVP of last year’s national-title run.
Super Penn State freshman Ali Frantti was most impressive with her 22 kills while hitting .405, a match-high. She also had 11 digs and has quickly established herself as one of the best players in the nation.
Junior Megan Courtney, thin but with a whip of an arm, had 18 kills and hit .279, had five blocks and the other outside, freshman Simone Lee, had 11 kills but eight errors.
Later on in the year it’s really going to get interesting, Hancock said. I think [both teams are] going to get better and I like what I saw from my people. So if I play better were going to get better and were going to be a tough team to beat.
Rose, who’s pretty much seen it all, certainly hopes so.
We had a lot of opportunities and even in the games we lost we had a lot of opportunities We made too many mistakes in the fifth game to beat a good team on the road, no less Stanford.
There are others, but it’s not impossible that these two teams will be ranked one and two come the postseason.
This is the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams in the country, Stanford’s Howard said. I think both teams are national-championship caliber.
She paused and added diplomatically, As are many other teams in the country.
It is early, after all.