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Jacob Myers | NCAA.com | December 18, 2018

NCAA volleyball: Why this Stanford junior class ranks among the elite

Stanford wins DI Women's Volleyball Championship

MINNEAPOLIS — They held each other a little tighter this time.

Why wouldn’t they? They had almost forgotten what that moment tasted like.

Two years ago, what the Stanford women’s volleyball team accomplished with a core group of four freshmen was more than unexpected.

When Kathryn Plummer, Jenna Gray, Audriana Fitzmorris and Morgan Hentz won their first title in 2016, the elation was real, but there was no heartbreak before the triumph. They experienced success immediately.

SHOP STANFORD VOLLEYBALL CHAMPIONSHIP GEAR

On Saturday night, inside the Target Center in front of a sold-out crowd that was mostly wearing Husker red — not Cardinal red — the reaction was more visceral. Every player was lost in the moment of a second national championship in three years because this time there was a fall before the climb back to the top.

The national semifinal loss to Florida in 2017 stuck with Stanford through the season and up to the final, fateful swing from Meghan McClure against Nebraska in a thrilling five-set match that will be looked at as one of the sport’s greatest national finals.

And as the confetti poured down, covering the camera crews and the Stanford team as they celebrated amid the flakes of white and gold that made visibility impossible, it was easy to see the true story behind the program’s record eighth national championship.

This junior class has now risen into the category of the elite.

"I think we kind of felt there was something special just starting off freshmen year,” Gray said.

Gray had 57 assists Saturday night. Plummer led the team with 19 kills, Fitzmorris needed to have another great game, and she did, with 14 kills. Hentz set a career-high with 32 digs, including the final being a perfect pass to Gray off a Mikaela Foecke missile for the championship point.

MORE: Stanford defeats Nebraska in five sets for national title | Final bracket | Highlights

This class has one full season left to play, so it’s not time just yet to talk about legacy. But the writing is on the wall for how historic this class can be.

This outgoing Nebraska senior class with Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney deserves recognition as one of the best classes ever after a fourth straight national semifinal and nearly a third national championship. After all, it really matters what a team does in the postseason.

Foecke, an all-time great at Nebraska, was an offensive catalyst as a freshman in 2015 and Maloney wasn’t yet the libero and played part time as the backup defensive specialist. So they were still parts of that first championship. The difference here, though, is the Stanford juniors — soon-to-be seniors — all had a major role in the 2016 national title.

Plummer even took on a bigger role that year which laid the foundation for her superstardom today. After an injury, she moved from the right side to outside hitter. She also quickly began developing as a back row player, despite having never played defense in high school.

Since then, Plummer has only added to her game with different types of shots that make her difficult to defend and the back-to-back AVCA Player of the Year.

"I think from the get-go we all knew that coming in Kathryn was going to make an impact in the program,” Alade said Friday before the match.

Let’s put this into perspective: The class now has nine All-American honors, two AVCA Player of the Year award recipients, a 20-0 Pac-12 season and two national championships. They also had to undergo a coaching change following their freshman season.

Kevin Hambly has said numerous times that after last year’s loss in the semifinals, he asked the team — he asked the juniors — to do things they had not done before. The response to that request ended with sweet redemption.

“I think everyone witnessed it, between all four of these juniors, just incredible leaders in totally different ways,” Hambly said.

Karch Kiraly, the US women’s national team coach and ESPN color commentator for the national championship, said he’s not sure there’s ever been a class that has won three national championships as primary players for a team in four years.

"It's a tight group and they've done something that doesn't often get done,” he said. “They’ve done some impressive things.”

Kiraly mentioned the 2008 Penn State class with Nicole Fawcett and Christa Harmotto as one of the best ever. They won two national championships.

RELATED: 7 takeaways from the NCAA volleyball championship

Stanford also had a tremendous class that graduated in 2015 but never won a national title. One of the holdovers from that team who had to redshirt in 2015 because of injury, Inky Ajanaku, was likely the main reason Stanford won in 2016.

This year, Alade wasn’t as much of a cornerstone, but her impact and development from last year made the rewritten ending for 2018 possible. If this class is going to be the first to win three championships in four years as a large part of the team, the four of them will unequivocally be the face of the program.

"It sounds terrifying thinking that it's already our senior year. It's very sad,” Gray said. “I think we've gained so much experience from — I mean — losing in the semis, no one wants to do that.”

No, they don’t. And if Stanford can hold onto that trophy a bit tighter, there’s a good chance Gray, Plummer, Fitzmorris and Hentz will get the send-off and recognition they have earned.

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