COLUMBUS, Ohio — Stanford coach John Dunning made his players laugh by taking a few pictures of them while they talked to the media after winning Saturday’s NCAA volleyball final 3-1 over Texas.
Consider that when he won his first national championship, in 1985 with Pacific, the idea of photography with a phone would have sounded like science fiction.
Dunning also mentioned that one of his primary hitters on that team 31 years ago was 5 feet, 6 inches tall. You know, libero-sized now.
“That’s how much the game has changed: Kathryn Plummer is a foot taller and is a ball-control player,” Dunning said of the National Freshman of the Year, who not only led Stanford in kills (18) Saturday, but as he said, is a tremendous passer.
Plummer is one of four rookies who played huge roles in this championship, Stanford’s seventh, which ties Penn State for the most in NCAA history. The Cardinal also had a freshman at setter in Jenna Gray, who seemed older than her years directing the team; at libero in Morgan Hentz (27 digs), who covered the floor like a tarp; and at middle blocker in Audriana Fitzmorris, who like Plummer is 6-6 and has a lot of power. She had 10 kills and contributed to the Cardinal’s 12 total blocks.
If you’re a championship team with that many freshmen playing key roles, you have to feel great about what the next few years could bring. Is Stanford going back to a dynasty mode, similar to 1992-2004, when the Cardinal won their first six titles?
OK, that might be a little too much to say right now, considering how it has become harder than ever to win a championship in volleyball. Dunning chuckled, because in the immediate euphoria of Saturday, he had barely even thought about the next day, let alone next season.
“It’s going to be a little easier than this year. Because when we started, we had zero players in the same position as last year,” Dunning said of how the puzzle fit together in 2016. “I don’t know what next year will bring, but I guess everybody should look at us and [say] we have some good players returning.”
One that won’t be back, though, is middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, who capped her career as the most outstanding player of the Final Four after scoring 20 points in the semifinal over Minnesota and 20.5 against Texas.
Ajanaku came in with a much-heralded recruiting class in 2012, and that is the group she thought she might win a title with. But she suffered a knee injury in the summer of 2015 and had to redshirt last year. The Cardinal had a disappointing ending to that season, being upset in the NCAA second round by Loyola Marymount.
Ajanaku came back to lead a very different team in 2016, with so many freshmen, sophomores and position changes. It wasn’t easy. In fact, she acknowledges it was flat-out uncomfortable for a while, and that was part of why Stanford lost seven matches. That’s the second-most ever by a championship team; only 1981 winner Southern Cal lost more, with 10.
But the talent, the size, the ambition — all of those things were there when the Cardinal began the season. It just had to come together, and Ajanaku had to be a big factor in facilitating that. She credited her family, teammates, team trainers and Dunning for helping her not lose confidence while she was coming back from her injury.
“John is one of the people who will continue to look you in the eye and say, ‘I will never give up on you,'” Ajanaku said. “He will try any method of coaching to make sure you’ll succeed in the sport and as a person. He has an incredible volleyball mind.”
But it had been 12 years since Stanford had won a national championship, and for a school that collects those in abundance in many sports, that’s a long drought. Dunning acknowledged as much, and his Texas counterpart, Jerritt Elliott, could empathize.
“I know what this means to him,” said Elliott, who is now 1-3 in NCAA finals. “Because as a coach, you start doubting yourself, start looking at all the different things you can do better. He’s such a great coach; I dream to get to five championships.”
Dunning won his first two titles at Pacific. Now he has three at Stanford, a program that has made the most NCAA finals (15) and the most final fours (20) in Division I women’s volleyball. History “lives” with Stanford all the time; the Cardinal are surrounded by it.
And it’s even in their blood, at least in one case: Senior Kelsey Humphreys’ mother, Wendy Rush Humphreys, was an All-American setter for the Cardinal from 1984 to 1987, when Stanford lost three times in the NCAA championship match.
One of those, in fact, was to Dunning’s Pacific team. Humphreys joked that her mom told her to “bring one home for the family,” and that’s what she did.
For the Stanford volleyball family, this is very meaningful. Since the Cardinal’s last title in 2004, they had lost some very difficult matches. In 2006, ’07 and ’08, they fell in the NCAA final. In 2010 and ’13, they lost intense, high-caliber five-set matches in the elite eight. In 2014, Stanford lost in the national semifinal to Penn State.
And on the personal side, the Cardinal dealt with a tragedy in 2012, when sophomore Samantha Wopat died. Her twin sister, Carly, continued as one of Stanford’s top players, but it was a heartbreaking thing for Dunning and the program to get through.
Yet Stanford persevered, and this year the Cardinal ended up with what turned out to be the perfect mix of youth and experience. Dunning said it wasn’t necessarily his intention to have put together such a formidably tall team — it’s hard to plan such things in recruiting — but that’s what he got.
And although the Cardinal finished tied for second in the Pac-12 and then got the No. 6 seed, by NCAA tournament time their chemistry and confidence were both soaring. Even going down 0-2 in sets to Wisconsin on the Badgers’ home court in the regional final didn’t stop the Cardinal. Ajanaku told them then it wasn’t going to end that way and that they had to keep believing.
“The freshman class coming in, we had a lot of expectations for ourselves,” Plummer said. “I don’t think there was any doubt in our mind that a national championship could be a possibility. And now it’s real, and it’s awesome.”