Stanford women’s volleyball faced a tough challenge just a week into the season, making a trip across the country last Wednesday to take on the then-No. 7 Florida Gators.
But the match was hardly a struggle. The Cardinal — led by the trio of seniors Kathryn Plummer (21 kills), Jenna Gray (37 assists) and Morgan Hentz (15 digs) — dispatched Florida in straight sets, 25-22, 25-17, 25-19. Four days later, the team added a win over No. 3 Texas to improve to 4-0. As a result, Stanford was the unanimous top team in Monday’s coaches poll.
The Cardinal finished 2018 with a 34-1 record, avenging its early-season loss to BYU in the national semifinals before beating Nebraska in the final. After rolling through the NCAA last season, the Cardinal return more of last year’s squad than almost any other top-ranked team.1 But the road won’t be easy for the talented favorites, who will have to beat stalwarts from the Midwest and upstarts from the South.
Stanford was the only school with three 2018 First-Team All-Americans, all of whom were juniors. The team’s biggest loss was middle blocker Tami Alade, a Second-Team All-American and the only senior who consistently played last season. Gray, the two-time defending Pac-12 Setter of the Year, was the only non-senior setter to earn First-Team All-American honors last year. Hentz, Mayor of Hentz-Ville, is the two-time defending Pac-12 Libero of the Year and last year’s Final Four Co-MVP.
And then there’s Plummer, the two-time defending National Player of the Year, a dominant force on the outside who’s already racked up more awards than can comfortably fit on her bio page. Plummer, Hentz and Gray might be the NCAA’s top players at their respective positions. The trio has won a pair of titles together and may be in line for a third.
Stanford brings back a lot of talent this season
Percentage of 2018 contributions produced by players returning in 2019 for top NCAA women’s volleyball programs
The toughest competition, as is often the case in volleyball, comes in the Big Ten, which claimed five of the top eight spots in the preseason coaches poll.
The Wisconsin Badgers may present the biggest challenger to Stanford as the only top-11 team returning a higher percentage of contributions. The preseason coaches poll put Wisconsin fifth, behind Nebraska and Minnesota, but Big Ten coaches named UW the conference favorite. The Badgers looked the part early but suffered a pair of close losses to ranked teams over the weekend and will need to bounce back.
Wisconsin is led by a junior class featuring Sydney Hilley, Dana Rettke and a redshirted Molly Haggerty. The 6-foot-8 Rettke, a nearly unstoppable blocker, spent the summer competing with the U.S. national team. Haggerty was the 2016 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but a back injury cost her all of 2017, and she struggled to return to form last year. Hilley, a Second-Team All-American, ranked fourth in the country in assists per set last year and is one of just three setters named to an All-American team who returns this season.
And Illinois retained All-American outside hitter Jacqueline Quade from its Final Four team but lost setter Jordyn Poulter to graduation (she now plays on the national team). The Illini will likely replace her with Mica Allison — a transfer from Auburn, a former top recruit and one of the nation’s best underclassman setters. Illinois has also struggled early, losing a pair of matches this weekend, though Allison has barely played because of an injury.
And perennial contenders Nebraska and Penn State enter the season with strong young teams. Nebraska, national champions in 2015 and 2017 and last year’s runners-up, can never be counted out, especially if setter Nicklin Hames makes a substantial leap her sophomore year. The Huskers are off to a 4-0 start with no seniors on the roster. Penn State has won at least 22 matches in each of the 41 seasons played under head coach Russ Rose. The Nittany Lions, with 15 underclassmen on their roster, have jumped out to a 5-0 record but face their first big test when Stanford comes to town on Friday.
Minnesota made the biggest jump among last year’s top-10 teams, coming in third in the preseason rankings despite being upset by Oregon in last year’s regional semifinals. That loss marked the Gophers’ fourth-straight tournament upset; they were the No. 2 seed three of the last four years but haven’t reached the championship match since 2004. Replacing All-American setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson is the biggest challenge for the Gophers this year, who have struggled early this season.
Outside the Big Ten, a pair of Big 12 Teams are off to hot starts. No. 3 Texas swept Minnesota and took Stanford to five sets. And Baylor, a program that hasn’t reached even the Sweet 16 in 10 years, shot up to No. 5 after winning at Wisconsin and at Marquette to reach 5-0.
The under-the-radar contender could be Kentucky. The SEC favorite is one of the best teams in terms of returning contributors. Junior setter Madison Lilley will try to make a case for player of the year, and there’s plenty of All-American talent around the roster.2 But the Wildcats struggled out of the gates, suffering an early-season straight-sets upset at the hands of then-unranked Utah.
Stanford’s early-season challenges are far from over: The Cardinal face three top Big Ten teams in the next week, culminating next Wednesday with a rematch of the national championship game against Nebraska. And there will be challenges throughout the year from other top teams, especially come December. But if last year is any indication, the Cardinal will be ready.