PALO ALTO, Calif. — Stanford is going for its third NCAA Division I women’s volleyball championship in four years.
And if the third-seeded Cardinal get to next week’s national semifinals, they certainly will have earned it.
Friday they had to beat Pac-12 rival Utah for the third time this season and did, but it took all defending NCAA-champion Stanford had.
Ultimately, Stanford (27-4) advanced to its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament round of eight and 29th overall as it held off Utah (24-10) 22-25, 25-14, 25-10, 12-25, 15-11.
It set up another match with a bid to the final four on the line against Penn State (26-5), which in the first match Friday beat upstart Cincinnati (27-7) 20-25, 25-17, 23-25, 25-12, 15-11. Penn State is in its 16th regional final. The 7 p.m. Pacific match will be shown on ESPNU.
Stanford has won eight NCAA titles, while Penn State has seven, the last when the Nittany Lions went back-to-back in 2013 and ’14. And more often than not, it seems like they’ve played each other this time of year. They played each other earlier this season when Stanford came away with a four-set victory in State College on September 13.
“When you have the two winningest teams in terms of championships in the country squaring off, it’s good for the sport, good for the fans,” Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. “I mean tomorrow is just a great day for volleyball with all the matches that are going on, it’s all day on ESPNU, it’ll be a battle, it’ll be a great match, they’re great athletes and we know we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Kathryn Plummer led Stanford with 29 kills — seven in the fifth set — and hit .389 and had a season-high seven blocks to go with 10 digs.
Audriana Fitzmorris had 10 kills, four blocks and two digs. Madeleine Gates had eight kills with no errors in 14 attacks and hit .571 to go with an assist, a career-high 14 blocks and a dig.
Meghan McClure, who had kills for Stanford’s last two points, finished with six kills, four blocks and 11 digs.
“I think that our team has so many weapons, that on any given day, certain people are given the ball more than others, just because we have so many options, I really love that about our team,” said McClure, who also had the championship-winning kill in the 2018 NCAA title match.
“I’m always ready for the last balls,” she added with a laugh. “They seem to find their way to me.”
Holly Campbell had five kills and five blocks, while setter Jenna Gray had three kills in six errorless tries, 52 assists, eight blocks and six digs. Libero Morgan Hentz had 23 digs and five assists.
“It was an incredible match to be a part of,” Hambly said. “It’s actually what we expected of Utah, our matches with them in our place and their place were exactly the same. They have a great team with tremendous athletes, they’re great players.
“It was a great fifth set, especially after losing that fourth set and struggling a bit, credit to the senior leadership and the fight that this group has to win, it was a fun match to be a part of. I’ve taken a lot of exciting journeys and this is one I’ll remember for sure.”
Dani Drews led Utah with 18 kills, an ace, two blocks and four digs.
Kenzie Koerber had 12 kills, hit .323, and had two assists, an ace, four blocks and 16 digs.
“They’re really good,” Hambly said. “Dani Drews, the lefty on the outside, she plays really fast and moves the ball around, it’s kind of a nightmare. And they’re all juniors, so we’ll have to face them again next year.
“And Koerber, she hits high, and with range, and Zoe Weatherington got better as the year went on, they’re good. They’re really good, and they pass well, and they served tremendously well tonight, and they’re really aggressive, a really good team. They probably should have been seeded based on how they’re performing.”
Senior Berkeley Oblad finished her career with 12 kills as she hit .304 and had four blocks, an ace and two digs. Zoe Weatherington had 10 kills and setter Ka’aha’aina-Torres had two kills in five errorless tries, 46 assists, a block and 14 digs. Libero Brianna Doehrmann, the team’s other senior who played, had 16 digs.
“Congratulations to Stanford for finding a way to win tonight and advance,” Utah coach Beth Launiere said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this team. I absolutely love this team. They have more fight in them than I could ever have imagined.”
Utah played 13 five-set matches this season and won six of them.
“We’ve done this all season long. I said this coming in that I do believe it’s one of the reasons we’ve been in a lot of five setters is this team will never stop fighting. We can get beat like we did and it doesn’t matter. This team has a tremendous amount of heart, and I really love them.”
While Penn State advanced with home victories last weekend over Princeton and Howard, Cincinnati beat VCU before upsetting sixth-seeded Pittsburgh in five on its home court.
Cincinnati and senior Jordan Thompson appeared poised to pull another upset, especially when the Bearcats went up 2-1, but then Penn State took over in the fourth and fifth sets.
Penn State hit .445 for the match.
Jonni Parker led Penn State with 17 kills and hit .341 and had three blocks and four digs.
Tori Gorrell had 15 kills, hit .519 after making just one error in 27 swings, and had five blocks, one solo.
Serena Gray had 14 kills with no errors in 20 attacks and hit .700 to go with three aces, four blocks and three digs. Kaitlyn Hord had nine kills, hit .389, and had nine blocks, one solo. Setter Gabby Blossom had five kills in seven errorless attempts, and had 54 assists, four blocks and nine digs.
Thompson led all hitters with 30 kills and hit .282 after taking 71 swings. She had two assists and three digs.
“Jordan Thompson is as advertised, she’s an incredible player and competitor,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “We battled, and unfortunately, we battled ourselves quite a bit because we continued to make it harder on ourselves than I thought was necessary by missing so many serves at critical times.
“But I thought we battled hard … and we gave ourselves a chance to extend the match after winning in the fourth game, and played a good fifth game.”
Maria Mallon had 19 kills, an ace and 15 digs. Armania Heckenmueller had 52 assists and seven digs.
“Obviously a frustrating game for us,” Cincinnati coach Molly Alvey said. “There were some things that we haven’t done in recent times, showed up today.
“There’s no question that I’m proud of this team and what they’ve done. All that they’ve accomplished this season, the hardest part, I think to explain for this team in particular is just the metamorphosis from August until now.”