Can it really be more than a year since the Stanford Cardinal women lifted the 2019 NCAA women's volleyball championship, the same way they did the season before?
It is. It was the third championship in the last four seasons, all won with a very similar starting lineup. The Cardinal graduated an absolutely legendary senior class prior to this season, led by two-time AVCA National Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer.
That group was "one of the best in the history of volleyball," according to Stanford head coach Kevin Hambly. And, quite frankly, we'd agree.
I checked in with Hambly to see how this season's version of the Cardinal is doing after its uncharacteristic 1-3 start. Any team that loses such a strong core is going to have an adjustment period. The Cardinal only returned two upperclassmen that played consistently last season, Meghan McClure and Holly Campbell, and Kendall Kipp, a freshman in 2019 with a lot of talent, but not a ton of playing time or experience.
Now, on top of that, add a pandemic into the mix, and Covid-19 restrictions in California. The Cardinal had virtually no preseason, and maybe not even enough players to take the court or games to make a season due to cancellations. Those were the cards dealt to the Cardinal.
"We knew we had a lot of talent in the gym that needed to develop," Hambly said.
March 10 was the last day they were in the gym. After that, they were able to train a little bit outside in August, but only have two contacts: two people could touch a ball, but that's it. Here's a little what it looked liked:
"We weren't really able to play volleyball ... We weren't really together again until second week of January," Hambly said. "So a young team that needed a lot of training time, wanted a lot of training time, wants to be great, was denied that. And now we're just trying to catch up."
There was a point days before the team could even be in the gym that they considered opting out of the season completely. It didn't seem as if county restrictions were going to change. They didn't know if they would be able to practice and they thought they would miss too many matches.
"Then all of a sudden we get a little life, and it's like, alright, let's go play," Hambly said.
They had an option: eight players were eligible. One of their student-athletes tested positive for Covid-19 and then there were a few other players ineligible under Covid protocols. Out of the eight available, five were freshmen and three were sophomores. They had absolutely no experience except for Kipp, who had a handful of games under her belt.
The team and Hambly wanted to play. They ultimately ended up using the Arizona and California matches the last two weeks as a chance to train and play some six vs. six.
"Any coach would understand you need time in order to grow," Hambly said. "But I think it's really cool is how great their attitudes have been, the perspective that they have. And every day in the gym we see this steep learning curve where we are getting better and better."
It's a challenging season to say the least, but the Cardinal will play to defend their title this season.
"I think the talent is there for a team that can be in a mix, it's just how fast we can get there," Hambly said.