Domination: Stanford sweeps Wisconsin to win third NCAA title in four years

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Stanford NCAA champions 2019
Stanford celebrates winning the 2019 NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

PITTSBURGH — Stanford was really good without her, going 9-1 when Kathryn Plummer missed 10 matches.

But with her?

Domination.

Back-to-back.

Three out of four.

And now Stanford’s ninth NCAA Division I women’s volleyball championship overall, the most by any program.

It capped an incredible run for the senior class of Plummer, setter Jenna Gray, right side Audriana Fitzmorris and libero Morgan Hentz.

Plummer, the 6-foot-6 outside hitter, almost single-handedly buried Wisconsin on Saturday night in the 25-16, 25-17, 25-20 NCAA title-match sweep, leading with 22 kills while hitting .459, an ace, 10 digs, and three blocks.

Pac-12 champion Stanford, which ended the season with 17 victories in a row, finished 30-4. Wisconsin, which won the Big Ten, ended its season 27-7 after making it back to the NCAA final for the first time since 2013.

“Hats off to an unbelievable Stanford team,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. “I mean, there hasn’t been anybody that’s done that to us this year. An unbelievable senior class  … they’ll go down as one of the great classes in the history of our sport.

“And Kathryn Plummer might be the best non-All-American in the history of any sport. That was an unbelievable performance.”

Plummer, because she missed so many matches, was ineligible to both make the Pac-12 all-conference team and the AVCA All-American team. She is, however, eligible for the VolleyballMag.com All-American team that will be announced Tuesday.

And along those lines, Plummer was named the most outstanding player of the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship after also leading with 26 kills in Stanford’s Thursday sweep of Minnesota in the semifinals.

Stanford’s Jenna Gray, left, and Kathryn Plummer celebrate a point against Wisconsin/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Were those the two best matches of her illustrious career considering the circumstances?

“I think so. I was just put in really good opportunities,” Plummer said. “Our defense was unreal. Jenna is an amazing setter …

“But I wanted to go out strong, last time playing with these amazing teammates of mine, and kind of just wanted to do it for them.”

What she did was not lost on her teammates.

“I’ve said it so many times throughout the tournament, throughout our four years, to this day,” Gray said, shaking her head, “but my jaw will drop. And there was a couple times where I couldn’t even celebrate because I was so caught off guard and I was just like, She really just did that. All right. Cool.

“So absolutely. She continues to grow and become a better player and surprise us with how much better she can get.”

Added Hentz, “She’s the most lethal attacker in the NCAA. And arguably any attacker out there. So we’re lucky to have her on our side.”

Madeleine Gates, the former UCLA player who came to Stanford for this season as a graduate student and first transfer in the history of the storied program, ended the match with her 10th kill. She had just one error in 17 attacks and hit .529 and had an assist and two blocks.

Fitzmorris had eight kills, two digs, and three blocks, while junior outside Meghan McClure had seven kills, 13 digs, and a block.

Holly Campbell had three kills in six errorless attacks, a dig, and five blocks. Gray had 39 assists and seven digs, while Hentz had 17 digs and five assists as Stanford improved to 5-0 all-time against Wisconsin.

“We just ran up against a team that is unbelievable,” Sheffield said. “And it’s a little bit humbling, but it’s a credit to them.”

Wisconsin’s Sydney Hilley gets low to set as Dana Rettke gets ready to attack/EdChan, VBshots.com

Wisconsin was trying to become just the 11th school to win the title since women began competing in the NCAA in 1981. The last team to win that school’s first championship was 2005 when Washington won that program’s only crown.

Molly Haggerty led the Badgers with 10 kills and hit .308 and had an assist, a dig, and a block. Dana Rettke was held to seven kills as she hit .158 and had two digs and just one block on a night when Wisconsin hit .152.

Danielle Hart had six kills with no errors in 17 attacks and hit .353 to go with a dig and two blocks. Grace Loberg struggled again, this time getting five kills with five errors in 33 swings to hit .000. Libero Tiffany Clark had 10 digs and four assists and setter Sydney Hilley had 25 assists, an ace, and 11 digs, and had no answers throughout the match.

“Yeah, I mean, we’re used to hitting a high percentage,” Hilley said. “(Stanford’s) up there being some trees, and our hitters, they did what they could. They tried to be courageous, out of system quite a bit. Taking quite a bit of swings. They’re just a great team, and credit to them on that.”

Stanford also won three titles in four years when the Cardinal took it all in 1994, 1996, and ’97. Stanford, which won its first title in 1992, is also the only team to lose in three consecutive finals, in 2006, ’07, and ’08. The last team to go back-to-back was Penn State in 2013-14.

The Cardinal got here by sweeping Denver and Cal Poly, getting past Utah in five, and then sweeping Penn State before sweeping Minnesota.

“It’s not a bad four-year run. It almost feels like it got started against us a few years ago (in 2016 in the NCAA regional final when Wisconsin was up 2-0) at our place. And they’ve had their foot on the gas pedal ever since,” Sheffield said.

“I thought Kevin did a great job of managing his team this year, I think, you know, you come back after winning last year and Kathryn is banged up early on and then going to the meat of the schedule without her and still being able to find ways to win.

“And not feeling pressure to bring her back too early. I mean, that kid looked really fresh ever since she’s been back. We’re not the only team that those guys have made look like that. Penn State’s a really good team. Minnesota’s a really good team. We’re really a good team.

“And they just plowed right through us. But where do they rank? I don’t know. But they’re champions, and they’ll be able to carry that with them for a long time. It’s an unbelievable team.”

This senior class was highly touted from the get-go.

In 2016 Stanford, led by the team’s senior, Inky Ajanaku, got better down the stretch and beat Texas in four sets in the NCAA title match. In 2017, Stanford lost in Florida in five in the semifinals. And then last year, in a match for the ages, the Cardinal beat Nebraska in five to finish 34-1.

Was this championship better or different than the previous two?

“It’s hard to answer that because we’ve had so many memories, but I think this is kind of the cherry on top. We set out for this to be our goal this season,” Plummer said.

“Just like every other season, but to be able to do it like our last time on the court, to finish in this way and to be able to play with our best friends for one more time, I think this one’s a little bit sweeter because it’s our last time together, and we’re not going to be able to have this feeling again.”

Gray recalled what her mother told her and her siblings.

“When I asked who the favorite child is, and she was like, I don’t have favorites, but I do like a certain one more at different times,’ ” Gray said with a laugh.

“So I’d say right now I like this one a lot. But in all seriousness, I think every single national championship has been such a different route, such a different story. So it’s hard to really compare them.”

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