'Spike Night' women's volleyball preview: No. 9 Stanford at No. 7 Washington

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StanfordPhoto.com / Washington Athletics

Who: No. 9 Stanford at No. 7 Washington in Pac-12 women’s volleyball action

When: Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m. PT/8 p.m. MT, with Krista Blunk and Dain Blanton on the call.

Pac-12 women’s volleyball royalty meets on the court in Seattle, as the Cardinal and Huskies try to get a leg up on each other early in the conference season in this top-10 battle two nights before the schools' football teams meet on the gridiron for another top-10 showdown.

The Story so Far: No. 9 Stanford (8-2, 2-0 Pac-12)

I had a chance to talk with Purdue coach Dave Shondell when his Boilermakers came to Stanford for a two-match weekend on The Farm, and Shondell told me he would be shocked if Stanford didn’t make the Final Four. Sure, Stanford got dropped in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and are very young in 2016, but Shondell’s claim is far from outlandish. Head coach John Dunning reeled in the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, and five freshmen are already making a significant impact. The team has a ton of height, as seven players are 6-foot-3 or taller. That height has led the Cardinal to be the No. 1 blocking team in the nation, as Dunning’s group averages a ridiculous 3.49 blocks per set.

And the Card wasn’t piling up stats against the Little Sisters of the Poor in the non-conference slate, either, as Stanford played five teams who were ranked before Pac-12 play began and gave No. 2 Minnesota its only loss of the season (ironically, Stanford’s first two conference matches against Cal and Oregon State are two of the lesser opponents it has faced so far).

While there is a ton of talented youth on the roster, it’s still a young group, and that has led to some mistakes – twice in its first three home matches, Stanford blew 2-0 set leads, eventually losing in five to both San Diego and Purdue. It has been smooth sailing against much weaker competition since, winning five in a row heading into its first big test of the conference season.

The Story so Far: No. 7 Washington (11-1, 1-1 Pac-12)

The Huskies steamrolled their way into conference play, entering the Pac-12 slate as one of five remaining undefeated teams in the nation. They had made it look easy for the most part, too, as the Dawgs swept six of their 10 non-league foes. They had a solid win at then-No. 14 Hawai’i in five sets and made relatively quick work of a Big Ten school (Maryland in three sets) and a Big 12 side (Oklahoma in four, holding the Sooners to 15 in the last two sets) at a tournament at USC. Keegan Cook’s bunch was making it look easy.

And then Washington State came to town. While the Cougs entered the game 10-2, they really didn’t beat many teams of consequence, losing to their two toughest opponents in Purdue and Baylor, and their record and blocking numbers (now No. 3 in the nation in blocks per set) appeared to be a tad inflated. That appeared to be the case after the first set as well, as the Dawgs took a 1-0 lead by claiming the first 25-16. But then Wazzu showed it was for real, taking the next three sets 25-22, 26-24, 25-19 to secure its first win in Seattle against the Huskies since 2001 (the Cougs further cemented their status as a Pac-12 player by winning at then-No. 9 UCLA in five sets).

The Dawgs regrouped with an impressive sweep at then-No. 21 USC, hitting a cool .340 as a team and racking up 11.5 blocks and seven service aces (six in the second set alone). Picked to finish third in the Pac-12 this year, the Huskies again look like a contender for the Pac-12 title a year after sharing the crown with USC.

Three Players to Watch: Stanford

  • #12 Inky Ajanaku (6’3" redshirt senior, middle blocker - She’s baaaa-ack. Sidelined for all of 2015 with an ACL injury that also washed out a potential spot on Team USA in Rio, Ajanaku has worked her way back towards her 2014 form, when she was a first-team AVCA All-American and the Volleyball Magazine National Player of the Year. So far in 2016, she’s hitting a very crisp .427 on 2.7 kills per set while adding 1.52 blocks per set, which would lead most teams.
  • #24 Audriana Fitzmorris (6’6" freshman, middle blocker) - But Stanford isn’t most teams, and Ajanaku’s 1.52 blocks per set are second to Fitzmorris, who is fifth in the nation with 1.70 blocks per set (that average leads the Pac-12). At 6-foot-6, she has shown an ability to rack up blocks in a hurry, and when she’s teamed up with 6-foot-8 Merete Lutz in the middle, good luck swinging past that NBA frontcourt.
  • #9 Morgan Hentz (5’9" freshman, libero) - Another one of Dunning’s prized recruits in the No. 1 incoming class, Hentz flies all over the place to keep rallies going and isn’t afraid of a floor burn or four. Sophomore Halland McKenna was very good in the libero role for the Cardinal last year, which gives you a sense of how good Hentz is considering she taken a lot of playing time from McKenna. Statistically speaking, she leads the team with 4.28 digs per set (171 total).

Three Players to Watch: Washington

  • #4 Courtney Schwan (6’1" junior, outside hitter) - The top option in Washington’s balanced attack, Schwan has improved both her kills per set average and hitting percentage from her freshman year on (those don’t necessarily go together). She leads the team with 3.60 kills per set, and her .321 hitting percentage is very good for an outside hitter who is getting more than eight swings per set.
  • #15 Kara Bajema (6’2" freshman, middle blocker) - She’s also listed as an outside hitter on the roster, but don’t get it twisted – Kara Bajema is there to stuff you. Her 1.68 blocks per set are second in the conference only to Stanford’s Fitzmorris and she has already been named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week once this year. She’s coming off a match in which she hit .438 on nine kills to go along with five blocks and two aces in the sweep over USC.
  • #13 Bailey Tanner (6’1" junior, setter) - Washington’s quarterback on the court knows how to keep her hitters happy, as three Huskies are averaging at least three kills per set and another five are averaging at least one kill per set. For the season, she’s averaging 10.70 assists per set (second in the Pac-12) and is coming off a 38-helper performance. In the past, she was part of a 6-2 with the graduated Katy Beals, but now she is the primary setter in what has mainly been a 5-1 (Jade Finau has got some time at setter as well when the Dawgs go 6-2).

Three Notes to Know

  1. Stanford finishing strong in conference play - After struggling to finish matches in non-conference play, Stanford has absolutely slammed the door shut on its first two league opponents. In match-clinching sets, Stanford hit .652 as a team in the fourth set to knock off Cal, winning the set 25-13, and was a cool .625 in the third set of a sweep of Oregon State, claiming the set 25-8.
  2. Pac-12 volleyball royalty in Seattle - There’s always a lot on the line when Stanford and Washington play, and 2016 is no different. Wednesday’s match marks the fifth straight year that the Cardinal and Huskies are ranked in the top 10 at the time of their match in the 206 (Washington is 3-1 in the previous four meetings).
  3. The Pac-12 is making its presence felt in the polls - With the addition of Washington State (No. 17) and Utah (No. 25) into this week’s AVCA Top 25, the Pac-12 now has eight teams ranked – in addition to the aforementioned Cougs and Utes alongside Stanford and Washington, UCLA is No. 12, Colorado is No. 20, Oregon is No. 21 and USC is No. 23. It is the most ranked Pac-12 teams in any poll this season and the most since the Pac-12 had eight ranked teams in the Sept. 7, 2015 poll.
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12:30 PM PT

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