-Story by Jessica Eley
You don’t have to wait until the College Football Playoff to watch powerhouse programs play for a national championship. In a matchup between the two standard-bearers of the sport, top seed Stanford will battle fifth-seeded Penn State in the women’s volleyball national semi-finals on Thursday at the Chesapeake Bay Arena in Oklahoma City.
To say both teams have a long history of winning would be an understatement. The Cardinal and Nittany Lions are the only two teams who have appeared in every single NCAA Division I volleyball tournament since it began in 1981. They both also have six national championships, the most in Division I volleyball.
Stanford is going into tonight’s match with a near perfect record (33-1), with its only loss coming a few weeks ago on Nov. 26 against Pac-12 rival Washington. Since then, the Cardinal have won five matches in a row, dropping only two sets total in the process.
“It’s a match we could learn from, win or lose, and we did and that’s not easy to do,” said Stanford head volleyball coach John Dunning said about bouncing back from the Washington defeat.
In that four-set loss, the Huskies, who had the home court advantage out-killed Stanford 60-52. Also, the Cardinal sided out at a lower percent, meaning the team was stuck in one rotation several times before earning a point.
“I’m proud of this group, because they just gritted their teeth and said let’s go next week and got back in the gym and worked hard and we’ve gotten better since then,” Dunning said.
Dunning described the stellar season as a team effort. Probably the most impressive aspect of the Cardinal’s season is that they played 24 games against ranked competition and came away victorious in 23 of them. Six players – Inky Ajanaku, Jordan Burgess, Madi Bugg, Merete Lutz, Morgan Boukather and Kyle Gilbert – earned AVCA All-America honors.
The offense was led by three First-Team All-Americans: 6-3 junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, 6-1 outside hitter Jordan Burgess and setter Madi Bugg. Ajanaku leads the team in kills with 429 with a hitting percentage of .438, while Burgess is second on the team in kills with 385. Bugg is the number one setter in the nation, avering 12.11 assists per set.
The Nittany Lions
Penn State, making its seventh national semifinal appearance in the last eight seasons, is led by southpaw setter Micha Hancock. She ranks 10th in assists per set (11.53) and is sixth on the team in kills with 139, an unusually high number of kills for a setter. Freshman Ali Frantti and junior Aiyana Whitney lead the team in kills with 369 and 351 respectively.
Four players received AVCA All-America recognition: Hancock and senior middle blocker Nia Grant were on the first team, while Frantti and Whitney made the second team. Frantti was also named the 2014 Division I AVCA Freshman of the Year.
Although the team is stacked with talent, the Nittany Lions had a few hiccups throughout the season, suffering a five-set loss to Stanford during the early part of the season and to Nebraska and Illinois during Big Ten Conference play.
“We’re excited to be here representing our university and our conference,” said Penn State head volleyball coach Russ Rose. “And know that we have our work cut out for us with a great opponent.”
The two teams last met at the beginning of the season during the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge in Palo Alto, with the Cardinal outlasting the then top-ranked Nittany Lions 3-2. In that contest, Penn State out killed Stanford, 71-54, but also had 11 more attack errors than did the Cardinal.
Rose believes Stanford will meet a completely different Nittany Lion team than they met when they first played late in the summer.
“Our lineup is significantly different,” Rose said. “If you watch them play, if you were to compare how they played earlier to now, they’re playing with great confidence.”
Stanford’s Burgess also thinks her team is playing at a higher level than earlier in the season.
“I think we are better than we were in September,” Burgess said. “I think our offense is more balanced than it was in the past and our serve and pass game has definitely gotten better. Something we’ve always focused on is being a team as we continue throughout the season, and I think we’ve done a really good job of making each other better throughout the whole season.”
Added Dunning: “I think when we get to the court tomorrow we’ll find out if we’re better playing a team we played in September.”
The two teams face off tonight at 8:30 p.m, with the winner of the match facing the winner of the Texas/BYU national semifinal in the championship game on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
[Cover photo (Stanford volleyball team) courtesy of David Bernal/ISIPhotos.com]