COLUMBUS, Ohio — The 66-year-old coach just had to take a moment.
Barely a minute after the volleyball gods had — of all people — senior Kelsey Humphreys bump set an out-of-system ball to freshman Kathryn Plummer, who in turn bounced it off the Texas block and out of bounds, John Dunning simply needed a quick second or two to himself.
So as his kids — and really, when you’re 66 and four of your starters are freshmen, they’re truly kids — celebrated winning the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship with a 25-21, 25-19, 18-25, 25-21 victory, Dunning bent over and rested his hands on his knees, staring down at the floor.
“You know, it’s overwhelming. You put so much into this and this is just a group that’s just fun to be with. I love being around them and at that point it was kind of like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is actually real.’ It’s overwhelming,” Dunning said as Saturday night turned into Sunday morning.
“So I took a deep breath and was separate from people for a second so that I didn’t fall on the floor and cry or throw up or something. It just was overwhelming.”
This was Dunning’s 16th year at Stanford. He’d won two NCAA titles in his previous job, at Pacific, and then took Stanford to the 2001 and 2004 NCAA championships. And while most every season the Cardinal are in the national-championship discussion, it had been a long 12 years that including losing in the final match in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
And it’s doubtful that when he won in 2004 Dunning took out his cell phone and snapped a picture of one of his players as he did of Inky Ajanaku during their post-match news conference. Here’s a snapshot of what the senior middle did on Saturday night: 16 kills in 31 swings for a .419 hitting percentage, eight blocks — one solo — and a trophy of her own for being the MVP of the tournament.
“Man, I’m excited. I’ve been wanting this for a really long time and it wasn’t exactly the way I thought it was going to be and, you know what, that’s life,” said Ajanaku, who missed all of last season recovering from a knee injury. “Life throws a lot of things at you. And it throws a lot of opportunities and a lot of obstacles at you.”
The way she overcame them was remarkable.
Sixth-seeded Stanford, which was down 0-2 at Wisconsin in the regional final before beating the Badgers a week ago, knocked off second-seeded Minnesota on Thursday in the semifinals.
Against Wisconsin, Ajanaku had 20 kills and 11 blocks. Against Minnesota, she had 15 kills and nine blocks.
“We showed two nights ago that we were good enough to beat good teams. And we showed it in Wisconsin in a very, very difficult setting,” Dunning said. “And so I would guess that it’s reasonable for us to think we really had a good chance to win. But you don’t know how people are going to react when you get to the race, to the finals. And it’s like you go through the prelims in the Olympics and you get to the race and you don’t know how people are going to react.”
That’s the thing with first-year players.
“And I thought our freshmen were going to react great. They’re goofier than unbelievable, and they were exactly that way before the game. All they do is sing and dance. And I think they are going to get tired, that we should train more, because they’re going to use it all up before the game starts because they’re dancing so much. But you kind of roll with some stuff. But that’s the way we are.”
Stanford finished the season 27-7 as it won for the 10th time in a row. More importantly, it was the school’s seventh NCAA title, tying it for the all-time lead with Penn State.
Plummer, the 6-foot-6 right side who was converted to an outside hitter at midseason, had 18 kills, hit .325, had nine digs and was perfect on 29 serve-receive chances. She had 15 kills against Minnesota.
Another 6-6 freshman, middle Audriana Fitzmorris, had 10 kills, hit .375, and went on a serving run to start the fourth set that completely took Texas out of it as Stanford built a 6-0 lead from which the Longhorns never recovered.
Junior Merete Lutz, the 6-8 right side, had seven kills and four blocks. Freshman libero Morgan Hentz had 27 digs and freshman setter Jenna Gray had 51 assists, three kills, three blocks and three digs.
Fourth-seeded Texas, which beat top-seeded Nebraska in the semifinals, ended its season 27-5 and lost in the NCAA final match for the second straight year. Texas, which won its first NCAA title in 1988, won the 2012 title, in 2013 and 2014 lost in the semifinals and last year lost to Nebraska. “Yeah, I think they played extremely well,” 16th-year Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “Hentz played phenomenal. I think their middles really hurt us which was kind of a common theme throughout the season when we ran up against good middles. But I thought Hentz was a big difference maker. And I thought Kathryn Plummer played very well tonight.”
Freshman outside hitter Micaya White continued her outstanding play and led the Longhorns with 17 kills, 11 digs and six blocks. Junior right side Ebony Nwanebu added 16 kills. Sophomore Yaazie Bedart-Ghani had 11 kills and hit .455 and was switched from middle to outside in the third set when senior outside Paulina Prieto Cerame struggled terribly. She had two kills in 26 swings and hit -.231 on what was likely the worst match of her career.
Freshman middle Morgan Johnson had seven kills and five blocks, capping off a season in which she was thrust into the lineup when Texas lost All-American senior middle Chiaka Ogbogu when she was declared academically ineligible just before the season began.
“Things always change and that’s the responsibility. So this is the group we had and that’s the way they grew and they developed. I couldn’t be more proud of what we did this year and the fight that we had,” Elliott said.
“I mean, late October I don’t think anybody would have picked us to be in the finals and we found a way to make that happen.”
They would have said the same thing about Stanford until Dunning made a mid-match decision to go to a 5-1 with Gray and use Humphreys as a defensive specialist for Lutz, who he moved to the right side. Humphreys, waiting in the wings for three years, finally got to set but then lost the job. It was excruciating for Dunning to have to do it and extremely tough for Humphreys to handle.
Which is why it was so appropriate that she got the set on the match-winning kill. The truth is, neither she nor Stanford might have won this title had Ajanaku not gotten hurt and missed last season.
“I have to say that you would never wish that injury on anyone. But I’m so happy to be able to share this with Inky right now and be with her our senior year,” said Humphreys, who had eight digs and five assists in the match. “And she’s one of the strongest individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing with and knowing. And all the struggle that she’s talking about, you would never know by the way she walked in the gym or the way she interacted with any of our teammates.
“And she let us believe in ourselves. She’s an amazing leader, and I think that’s part of the growth she had in her year off. And I am just so humbled to be able to play with her, and so honored to just share this with her.”
And for Humphreys, was it all worth it?
“It is so worth it!” she exclaimed.
Humphreys is the daughter of Stanford legend Wendy Rush, who made it to four final fours in her career but never won a title.
“When we won two days ago she said bring one home for the family,” Humphreys said. “ … to be able to share the Stanford experience with her is something I can’t put into words. And I’m really happy to be able to put the Rush name on that trophy.
The crowd of 17,345 in Nationwide Arena — second for a title match only to last year in Omaha — was treated to two teams playing all out all match.
Texas jumped to an early lead in the first set when Dunning called time down 9-5.
“We did not react very well at the start of the first set. We were way down. Then they calmed down.”
Did they ever.
“And as soon as we did that and came back in the first set, I thought, OK, we’re here, let’s just see what Texas has and if we can match it. Because our reaction was good. We were strong enough to handle the situation, or oblivious enough to handle it, whichever it is.”
Stanford, as it normally does, responded well to the time out and pulled into an 10-10 tie. It stayed close and the score was 20-20 when Stanford closed it out, getting two Ajanaku kills and three blocks in the final five points.
In the second, Stanford trailed 18-16 before going on a 7-0 run that continued into a 9-1 finish to the set that saw Plummer and Fitzmorris get three kills apiece.
Texas owned the third set, but couldn’t keep any of that momentum going. After Stanford got out 6-0, the Longhorns pulled to 7-3, but soon trailed 12-4.
Dunning used a timeout when Texas got to 19-14. The Longhorns got a kill from Bedart-Ghani and Plummer hit long to make it 24-21, before Plummer ended it. The serve sent Hentz sprawling to her right but Humphreys was ready.
”We had like three points lead on them or something like that,” Plummer said. “But we were just focused on the next point. Texas brought out a great service — if you rattle Morgan, you know it’s a good one.
“And then Kelsey had a great set.”
Plummer had to compose herself.
“I don’t know, but it was just an awesome way to end it because it was kind of — this is going to sound weird — but how our season has gone and to end it that way instead of like the smashing kill is kind of just, like, relevant to how we should finish that match.”
Goofy or not, they’re mature on the court and when you add them in with seniors like Ajanaku and Humphreys and juniors like Lutz, it’s quite a mix.
“And that’s what teams that end up winning or have a chance to win the championship, that’s what it usually is, is a really cool mixture of different ages,” Dunning said.
“It’s crazy. And fun.”
Next week, VolleyballMag.com will announce its All-American teams and the player, coach and freshman of the year.
NCAA men’s previews begin next week, too.
And if you want to plan ahead, the 2017 NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship is December 14-16 in Kansas City, Mo. Barbecue and volleyball for all.