A Big Year for Stanford WVB

by Glenn on May 8, 2017

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I begin with the end. For 16 years, John Dunning was the head coach of the Stanford Cardinal Women’s Volleyball Team. In December his team won the NCAA Division I National Championship. In January, he announced his retirement.

I don’t know Coach Dunning, but as I’ve watched him and his team the last several years, I’ve felt he’s the kind of person I’d want to know. He appears to be a “what you see is what you get” person and what you see seems thoughtful and genuine. He was enormously successful as a coach, but a common theme in reading what Stanford players say about him is that he is a better person than a coach, which is how you would want it to be.

What has impressed me as long as I’ve watched him is his demeanor from the sidelines. There are those who admire a “that which does not kill me makes me stronger” style of coaching, but that is not Dunning’s way. And yet his teams perform well. And while I’ve got to believe there’s some intensity there at times, he’s not screaming at his players. The most heated I’ve ever seen him get was toward officials.

The following is a compendium of links related to Coach Dunning’s retirement:
ESPN short
ESPN long
Flo Volleyball 1
Flo Volleyball 2 (Interesting with its background of how Dunning got into coaching)
Flo Volleyball 3 (An interview with Dunning)
Stanford University (Official Announcement)
Stanford University (Photo Essay)
Volleyball Magazine 1 (An interview from May 2016)
Volleyball Magazine 2
NCAA Announcement
VolleyMob

You hate to see someone who is, apparently, at the top of his game end his career, especially when so many pieces that contributed to his team’s recent win will be returning in the fall, but how few people get to end their career this way? It’s wonderful to see someone find and live their calling in such an excellent way and finish on the mountaintop.

An interview with Kathryn Plummer following the National Championship win tells you a lot about Dunning as a coach.

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You never know when you are watching something extraordinary happen. My schedule last fall precluded me from watching as much volleyball as I would like, but this was a great year to cheer on Stanford Women’s Volleyball.

There was little, though, in the start of Stanford’s season to indicate they would finish the way they did. Three six-rotation players from the previous (2015) season—setter, Madi Bugg and outside hitters, Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard—had graduated and wouldn’t be on the floor, meaning big changes in the line-up.

Inky Ajanaku, who would have been part of that graduating class but had sat out the 2015 season following a knee injury, would return as a red-shirt senior. The question was, how well would she play. She certainly worked hard in therapy.

Stanford did bring in the number one recruiting class, which made you think the future was bright if you didn’t know exactly how imminent and ultimate that success would be. Stanford’s freshman class consisted of:
Audriana Fitzmorris, a 6’6″ Middle Blocker
Jenna Gray, a 6’1″ Setter
Morgan Hentz, a 5’9″ Libero
Caitlin Keefe, a 5’11” Defensive Specialist
Michaela Keefe, a 6’2″ Outside Hitter
Kathryn Plummer, a 6’6″ Setter and Outside Hitter

Returning to the team were:

Kelsey Humphreys (S, Senior), Tami Alade (MB, Sophomore), Ivana Vanjak (OH, Redshirt Junior), Payton Chang (DS, Sophomore), Halland McKenna (DS, Sophomore), Merete Lutz (MB, Redshirt Junior), Alexis Froistad (MB, Sophomore), Courtney Bowen (MB, Redshirt Freshman), and the 2015 NCAA freshman player of the year, Hayley Hodson (OH, Sophomore).

The dynamics this past season were fascinating. Dunning refers to the question of how to get new and returning players to mesh as putting the pieces of a puzzle together.

The solution to the puzzle meant that no one played in the position they had played the previous year. With Inky returning to the line-up and a new freshman middle blocker, Audriana Fitzmorris, joining the team, middle blocker Merete Lutz was moved to the right side. Hayley Hodson played opposite in 2015 and was now on the left. Ivana Vanjak, who had been a middle blocker in 2015 was now hitting on the outside. Halland McKenna moved from libero to defensive specialist. Everyone else was a freshman.

It also meant that Dunning tried something new—at least new in the time since I’ve been watching Stanford volleyball. He employed a 6-2 offense, which I hadn’t seen him run before. The “2” refers to the two setters employed. The advantage of two setters is that you always have three hitters/blockers in the front row. And you don’t have to have as well-rounded players, i.e. “six rotation players.” Each plays in the area of their strength and then subs out.

The disadvantage, from what I’ve observed, is that you have many more moving parts during a match. It can, for example, get confusing with substitutions and rotations. And you lose time and the pressure of necessity between the setter and her hitters to develop a connection. One setter means it largely depends on her to develop the connection with hitters. Two setters means each is on the court half the time and neither are learning to connect with all of the hitters because they don’t absolutely need to.

For four years, we  watched Madi Bugg run the offense as the sole setter. This year, Kelsey Humphreys, who had lived in Madi’s shadow for three years was going to start, but so would Jenna Gray, one of those highly-touted freshman.

So with all these new players on the floor and many more substitutions than we had seen, Stanford looked very different. Having become used to seeing Madi set Jordan—who were all these interlopers? There was a lot to get used to when you watched those early games of the 2016 season.

A few things became clear right from the start:

1. Some phenomenal players had joined the team.

2. Stanford was very tall.

3. The new libero, Morgan Hentz, could cover a lot of ground behind that tall front row. In fact, a play she made early on in the season ended up being in the running for play of the year on ESPN:

4. The team wasn’t exactly dialed in from the outset. If the potential for greatness was there, nothing like the ability to dominate was there in equal measure.

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From the outset, things looked both puzzling and promising for Stanford. The Cardinal lost its opening game to the University of San Diego, but then two days later beat Minnesota. They beat Illinois and Penn State, but then lost to Purdue. Five games into the pre-conference schedule, their record was 3-2.

And things got messy:

Hayley Hodson wasn’t herself. You could tell in those early games. Where in 2015 she helped carry the team with powerful kills and solid defense, in 2016 she looked like she was having trouble jumping. She eventually left the school on medical leave to take care of whatever issue she was facing. One hopes she will be back on the court and back to form this fall.

Michaela Keefe came on to replace Hodson. She had a solid presence on court. In the one game we were able to see in person—at Oregon State—she had nine kills in a three-game sweep. But then she, too, got injured and was out for the rest of the season.

If coaching is putting the pieces of the puzzle together, it helps if the pieces don’t break.

Something else became clear. The 6-2 offense wasn’t working that well. The Cardinal won matches, for example beating the Washington Huskies on the road, but then they lost to Washington State. At home they beat #19 Colorado, but then lost to the unranked Utah Utes. At this point they were 10-4.

And then came the Arizona match. Sadly, I missed this one. In the third set, Dunning switched from a 6-2 to a 5-1, featuring Jenna Gray as the sole setter. While the Cardinal ultimately lost that match and their record became 10-5, this was a turning point. With this new offense, the Cardinal would lose only two more matches for the rest of the season. From October 15 on, Stanford went 17-2. And, of course, of the 64 teams to enter the post-season tournament, they were the only team that didn’t finish with a loss.

This is the value of courageous and decisive coaching. It might have been tempting to leave things as they were, knowing that Grey could be the sole setter next year. The decision to make a change could not have been easy for either Dunning or Humphreys. Happily, though, however strained the relationship must have been in the short term, it never ended, which is a credit to both people. And with all the injuries, it wasn’t that Humphreys had no place on the court. She took on a role of defensive specialist, coming in for front row players (usually Merete Lutz, I think) who didn’t have back row capabilities. And she was a great option to set out-of-system balls.

Still, the decision to switch the setting plan didn’t come without a cost and by all accounts it didn’t go well at first as Humphreys would later tell Volleyball Magazine.

In spite of injuries and with a reconfiguration of the offense, something remarkable happened for Stanford, that is from match to match it looked like they were getting better.

And they had an unusually positive team dynamic. On a volleyball team there are a group of players in the limelight and then there are the players “on the bench” (actually standing throughout the match.) The Stanford bench players came up with a name for themselves—”The Machine.” And they gave themselves two roles: Role 1 was to push the playing team as hard as they could during practices to make them as good as they could be. Role 2 was as cheerleaders. They came up with funny cheers for seemingly every player and situation. They were entertaining. No doubt that Stanford was as good as it was because the bench played their roles so well.

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For most NCAA Division I volleyball teams, the end of the season is the end of play. Out of the roughly 330 teams in Division I women’s volleyball (more or less depending on eligibility), only 64 continue on to play at least one additional match in the post-season tournament.

There are two ways to earn one of those 64 spots:

First, be the winning team in your conference. There are 32 conferences, so half the teams in the tournament earn an automatic placement this way. Some conference winners are determined by best conference record. (In the Pac-12, for example, the University of Washington was the conference champion with a conference record of 16-4. Stanford tied with UCLA for second place.) Others are determined by an end-of-season tournament (for example, the Colonial Athletic Association, where James Madison won the championship tournament at the end of the season, which put them into the post-season tournament).

Second, be chosen by the tournament selection committee for an “at large” spot in the tournament. This is how Stanford made it into the tournament. To the consternation of some, Stanford was seeded higher than the conference champion Washington.

If you look at the entire season, this may have been a slight against Washington, but Stanford to my eyes appeared to be the better team at the end of the season. At any rate, the higher you are ranked, the “easier” your competition is in the early matches of post-season. Quotation marks because there are no guarantees. In 2015, Stanford was knocked out of the tournament in the second round by Loyola Marymount. The reality is that to the extent that the selection committee does its job well, the 64 teams in the tournament are all in the top 20% of Division I volleyball teams.

To my mind there was no doubt that Stanford would do well in the early rounds this year. It’s just that with each round the competition gets stiffer and so your prospects are dimmer the farther you go in the tournament. It strikes me that you have to believe you can win, but all but one team are, ultimately, deluded.

Stanford didn’t seem to struggle much against either the University of Denver in the first round or Boise St. in the second. They won both matches in straight sets. Then the Cardinal flew to Wisconsin for the third round, where the intensity would increase. Stanford beat Florida St. who had just defeated 11th seed Florida. This seemed like a good sign. But then they faced Wisconsin, the No. 3 seed team in the tournament who had home court advantage.

As far as I’m concerned, this was the match of the season for the Cardinal.

Vs. Wisconsin

In the first set, after losing the opening three points, Stanford tried to play catch up the rest of the game. They took the lead once and tied once. Otherwise Wisconsin managed to stay ahead the whole way and increased their lead toward the end of the match.

In the second set, Stanford looked stronger. For the first half of the game, Stanford led by at least 2-3 points. Wisconsin was now in catch-up mode and couldn’t quite do it. And then with Stanford leading 15-11, Wisconsin went on a 6-point roll. A block error, a Wisconsin kill, and a Stanford attack error forced Dunning to call a time out. Out of the time out, Stanford made an attack error and Wisconsin scored on two kills forcing Dunning to burn his second and final time out. Now Wisconsin was in the lead. Stanford would tie twice, but Wisconsin went into the locker room up 2-0 and the knowledge that they need only win one more set and they head to the final four.

This easily could have been the end of the road for Stanford and I wish I could have heard what went on in the Stanford team meeting during the intermission. With the exception of the opening of the third set, where Wisconsin was up 2-1, 3-2, and 4-3, once Stanford took the lead 5-4, they would always have the lead for the third and fourth sets. And in the final set, Stanford trailed just once, 1-0, before tying and then continuing to lead until the end. This was a stunning reversal on Wisconsin’s home court.

The third set opened with “a crazy point,” as the amped up University of Wisconsin broadcaster called it.

The start of the fourth set provided something of a moment of redemption for Kelsey Humphreys. On the first play, Wisconsin was out of system and their setter, Lauren Carlini, did what she should have done, which was send the ball over to Stanford’s setter, Jenna Grey, to take her out of the play. Unfortunately for Carlini, she didn’t send it far enough over the net and Jenna Grey pounded it for a kill. This caused a big celebration on the Stanford bench. With Grey rotating back to serve, Humphreys was supposed to come off the court with Merete Lutz subbing back in. In the post-game press conference, we learned that Lutz was so distracted by the celebration, she didn’t know to come back and Kelsey was now in the front row. Carlini took note of this and tried to exploit the 8″ height difference, but couldn’t. Those first two points in the fourth set don’t get old.

There is one other moment worth seeing again. It’s from the final set. It’s Morgan Hentz doing what she does. With the score 8-5, Hentz shows incredible reaction times. Hentz deserves her own highlight reel. I don’t know how you throw yourself on the ground over and over and still get up and move.

The best part of this match against Wisconsin, though, was the play of Kathryn Plummer. Actually, this was not a terrific match for her. For offense, on the season she had an average of 3.34 kills/set at an attack percentage of .258. In this match, she had just 1.4 kills/set at .216. On defense, Plummer appeared to be a serving target. On the season, she averaged a service return error every four sets. In this match, she had four, almost one per set, in addition to some returns that put Stanford out of system. This was an uncharacteristic match for her. You assume the Wisconsin coaching staff surveyed the floor and decided she was the weakest serve receiver, which is good tactics. But if they concluded she was the weakest, at least in that one area on this one particular night, she is in no way weak.

The beauty of it was to see Plummer’s resilience. She never signaled defeat.  To be a great player, you need to have some skills, which she certainly does. But you also need to have a short memory. You can’t be thinking about the serve you just shanked as the next one is coming. She didn’t. And it was great to see her score the last point of the match.

Because volleyball is a team sport, though one player (even the 2016 NCAA freshman player of the year) may have a one-off struggle in a particular match, it doesn’t mean everyone has to struggle. Inky Ajanaku, for example, on the season hit 2.88 kills/set on a .407 average with  1.54 blocks/set. In this match, Inky scored 4 kills/set at .447 and had 11 blocks—a rate of more than 2/set.

The team came back and through in spectacular fashion. The only other match this season that Stanford started out in an 0-2 deficit (vs. Arizona) they ended up losing.

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Heading into the final four matches—Minnesota (2) vs. Stanford (6) | Nebraska (1) vs Texas (4)—Karch Kiraly in pre-match coverage had to correct himself. He almost said that these were the four best teams. But he stopped and said what I think is true, that these were the four teams playing the best volleyball at the moment.

Though a fan, I thought anything could happen in the final four. Each team was full of talent and solidly coached. It turns out, though, that after the long climb back from the abyss that was the Wisconsin match, Stanford’s final two matches against Minnesota and Texas were somewhat anti-climactic. Still it’s exciting to see a team you enjoy watching win it all.

An observation from the Final Four match against Minnesota: Jenna Grey made a play that ended up on ESPN’s Sports Center. Stanford didn’t actually win the point, but her effort showed you the level of commitment and determination Stanford was willing to exert. Ultimately, they weren’t given the championship—they earned it.

In the finals match with Texas, Kathryn Plummer showed why she was the NCAA freshman player of the year. She had 18 kills and no reception errors.

Not only would Inky have a terrific final season on the Stanford team, she would also become an outstanding leader. Kiraly coined an expression for the Stanford quad. He called them “Inky and the Inkettes.”

If Stanford was a collection of pieces at the beginning of the season, they had become greater than the sum of its parts by the end. It all seemed to work quite nicely. And Stanford became the youngest team to win a National Championship.

It didn’t happen by itself, though. Stanford had terrific, matter-of-fact coaching. Here is Coach Dunning describing his team after the semi-final match against Minnesota.

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I don’t like to think about the ephemeral quality of sports. I enjoy watching the Stanford Cardinal Women’s Volleyball Team, but what does that mean, exactly, when from year to year and even within a season the composition of the team changes? I find myself a little sad to think that John Dunning won’t be on the sidelines this fall. A fantastic season has ended, but another season has come to its close, too.

I have no connection to Stanford as a school, but think that a lot of my interest in the volleyball team has come out of respect for and pleasure in watching the coaching. When Dunning would call a time out, the coaching staff would meet separately, briefly, and Dunning would listen to what the rest of the coaches had to say before he went to the player huddle and spoke. I thought it was an indication of his humility.

I don’t envy Kevin Hambly as he takes over as head coach. Stanford just won the National Championship. How does he excel this fall?

 

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