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Vytas Mazeika | The Mercury News | December 14, 2018

College volleyball: Cardinal devoted to reclaim NCAA title

Stanford volleyball sweeps BYU in national semifinals

For Stanford's Kathryn Plummer, the back-to-back Pac-12 player of the year, the memory of last year still stings. Especially after the 6-foot-6 outside hitter helped propel the Cardinal to a national title as a freshman in 2016, before bowing out in the semifinals as a sophomore.

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"Losing always sucks and we don't want to feel that again," Plummer said. "My goal after we won the national championship my freshman year was to never know what it was like to lose in the postseason, and unfortunately we had that experience last year. But I think our team has kind of redefined itself and I think we're more prepared for postseason and definitely for this stage just because we've had more experience with each other as a team."

John Dunning retired as head coach in 2016 after bookending his 16 years on The Farm with national titles.

Stanford hired Kevin Hambly as his replacement and the Cardinal went 30-4, its season over after a five-set loss to eventual runner-up Florida.

"Last year it was kind of like putting pieces together and I think this year we're a lot more balanced and have better relationships with each other," Plummer said. "And I think that this stage and the environment won't get the best of us like it did last year. But, yeah, losing always suck and we don't want to feel that again."

BRACKET: 2018 NCAA DI women’s volleyball interactive bracket | Printable bracket Scoreboard

For 42 years in a row, Stanford has brought home at least one NCAA trophy -- the longest streak in the nation.

In recent weeks the men's water polo team lost to USC in the championship game at Avery Aquatic Center, the women's soccer team was denied back-to-back titles in the semifinals and the men's soccer team saw an end to its supremacy after a three-peat, eliminated in the quarterfinals at Cagan Stadium.

"I think at Stanford you're going to see that every year where teams are in the mix," Hambly said. "It's amazing that you can call that trying times."

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The Cardinal (32-1) is the first team to go undefeated in conference play since 2003, back when it was the Pac-10.

For Hambly, that's merely an asterisk on loftier goals set the moment his inaugural season at the helm ended in Kansas City, Missouri.

"People are very excited about winning the Pac-12 and going undefeated and all that, but it's not what we're trying to accomplish this year," Hambly said. "It wasn't even something that we were talking about. It's something that happened. All that we've been talking about is doing right in this tournament right now and win the national championship.

"That's really been our main concern and that's been our focus literally since January when we came back. We identified the things that we needed to work on and we attacked those things. I think it's win-or-bust kind of deal."

WATCH: Stanford star Kathryn Plummer chats with Andy Katz

On the opposite side of the bracket, it's No. 7 Nebraska (28-6), the reigning NCAA champion, against No. 3 Illinois (32-3), where Hambly spent eight years as head coach.

Stanford gets a rematch with No. 4 BYU (31-1) on Thursday at 4 p.m. PT, which will be shown on ESPN.

The Cougars are the only team to hand the Cardinal a loss, way back when on Aug. 31 in five sets.

"I don't know if it's necessarily revenge," Plummer said. "I don't think last time we played as well as we could've, but luckily for both teams I think we both improved a lot since the third game of the season, so I don't know if we can compare because it's almost foreign and both teams are really, really different."

ALSO: Penn State vs. Stanford highlights

"The good thing is we know each other, the bad thing is know each other," Hambly said. "But either way it's going to come down to how we execute on our side and how we perform."

The NCAA championship is scheduled for 6 p.m. PT on Saturday and will be televised on ESPN2.

If all goes according to plan, it will feature the 20-year-old Plummer, a native of Aliso Viejo, California. The human biology major is the reigning AVCA National Player of the Year and in 2015 became the only player to win FIVB world championship medals in both indoor and beach volleyball.

"I think her first year (at Stanford) she was a really physical attacker, but I wouldn't say she had the range that she's developed and worked on," said Hambly, who believes Plummer has improved on every aspect of her game over the past two years. "Whether it's the variety of shots from an offensive standpoint, I think she's improved as a blocker, she's definitely improved as a passer and a defender, become a really aggressive and great server. If you go down the line, everything she's done, she's just getting better and better. And I think she got better today in some things.

"She's not done, she's not a complete product, which she probably won't be until she's 35 years old, to be honest. It's fun to coach a kid like that that's so hungry to learn and continue to get better."

Perks of a third-straight to the national semifinals -- 22nd overall for the Cardinal -- include being pampered on media day, an NCAA banquet with a special performance and an early Christmas present.

"Nike puts together this duffel bag of goodies for us," Plummer said. "And that's always a fun time opening that and seeing what we get."

Not as much fun is the two papers Plummer had to write on finals week while away from campus, plus the test scheduled for Wednesday.

"I think that we always hope that we're taking our finals on the road because that means we're at the national championship," Plummer said. "I mean, I want to say it kind of feels normal because we've done it for three years in a row. But going into the quarter we just expect to have to make these accommodations at the end of the season."

MORE: 2018 women's volleyball statistics

This article is written by Vytas Mazeika from Mercury News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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