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Cardinal Connection: Women's Volleyball

Oct 22, 2020

Traditional fall sport seasons are looking a little different these days. The Cardinal Connection series provides a unique perspective in how teams are communicating, navigating challenges, embracing opportunities and staying engaged -- all while remaining focused on their championship goals. This edition offers an inside look at the women's volleyball program.

EVEN THE DEFENDING national women's volleyball champion needs to be flexible during a pandemic. 

Stanford trained on a tennis court during the summer in anticipation of a fall opening. Now, much of the team is in a bubble more than 400 miles from campus as it prepares for a season that hopefully will begin in late January. 

It will be more than a year since Stanford claimed its third NCAA title in four years, sweeping Wisconsin to claim the program's record ninth national championship. 

With graduated All-Americans dispersed around the globe -- Kathryn Plummer playing in Japan, and Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz, and Madeleine Gates teammates with Dresden in Germany, and Audriana Fitzmorris in the Bay Area poised to begin her professional career -- the Cardinal is in the process of reimagining itself under fourth-year head coach Kevin Hambly. Senior Meghan McClure, at outside hitter, and junior Holly Campbell, at middle blocker, are back as returning starters, but there is much to discover while the Cardinal defends its title.

Preparation to defend that title has taken many forms. In a three-bedroom house in La Jolla, just a few steps from Windansea Beach, nine Cardinal are staying three to a room. With earbuds in place, they jockey for spots around the kitchen table to settle in for remote learning. 

The benefit, besides really getting to know your teammates, is gym time. The Cardinal is able to play in open gyms at San Diego's Coast Volleyball Club, where freshman libero Alex Lougeay starred.

When not playing or studying, "we love to hang out and watch movies," said sophomore outside hitter Kendall Kipp. "We've been watching all the Harry Potters, and 'The Bachelorette' just started … On off-days or weekends, we love to just go down to the beach and hang out."

 

Volleyball on the tennis courts.

THE DECISION TO come to San Diego was made after official preparation for the season was halted because of safety concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Until then, the team was staying at a Palo Alto hotel and training on rubberized courts assembled on outdoor tennis courts at the Taube Family Tennis Center from Aug. 12-Sept. 11. Maples Pavilion and other campus indoor facilities were off-limits.

"Originally, I was just trying to figure out a way to train," said Hambly, who envisioned setting up a temporary court on a grass field. 

Dan Levine, associate athletics director for facilities and housing, thought of the tennis-court idea, which made sense for its flat, hard surface and safety from theft or vandalism. The surface was assembled by the operations crew and volleyball staff. 

The situation wasn't perfect. Santa Clara County restrictions meant that only as many as two people could contact a ball during any sequence. 

"We couldn't play volleyball," Hambly said. "It was mostly drills. You can only do drills for so long before you start losing your minds, you know? They want to play."

The idea for sharing a house was set in motion by Campbell and freshman Annabelle Smith. 

"At first, it was difficult, because who wants to host nine college girls in a house for that long?" Kipp said. "But it's been fun and we've made it work. Honestly, it's been easier than I expected with all of us. The only issue is sometimes we have nine people on Zoom at once. I've gotten kicked off Zoom a couple of times, but it hasn't been terrible." 

The six-week rental is up on Nov. 2. Afterward, many will return to the Bay Area and some will head home until reporting for the season on Dec. 27. After quarantine, full training inside Maples Pavilion should start around Jan. 3-4. A double round-robin Pac-12 season should begin around Jan. 22. The dates are unofficial.

Until then, Hambly and his staff provide workouts and direction and communicate during team and individual Zoom meetings, but can't monitor workouts, watch film of them, or even ask how they went. 

"I'd love to be watching as much video as I possibly can squeeze in on USC and UCLA getting ready for this weekend," Hambly said. Instead, with a season-in-waiting and unable to provide hands-on instruction, Hambly spends more time on projects such as the Diversity Mentorship Program, a Pac-12 coaches' initiative that aims to strengthen the pool of minority coaching candidates in NCAA Division I women's volleyball. One of his goals is creating his own nonprofit for the program that could extend beyond volleyball. 

Hambly also likes to take time every day to watch international volleyball, to continue to "critically analyze the game," he said. "I miss that." 

Meanwhile, Hambly is impressed with the leadership of players like McClure, Campbell, and junior opposite Mackenzie Fidelak and how quickly the freshmen – four of whom are living in the La Jolla house -- have been embraced by the team. 

"Our bonds as a team, without traveling, without being here full-time, are way stronger than they've ever been," Hambly said. "As a staff, we've talked about that -- this is what we have, we can't change it. So, how do we get the most out of a tough situation? It hasn't beaten us down, none of us."

Kipp said the players have been open to anything. 

"It's definitely been the weirdest seven months of my life," she said. "I'm just really happy that we've been able to make the most of it. We've all been trying to go with the flow and stay in the moment. Whatever happens, it'll all work out."

Other programs in other states have had fewer restrictions and more gym time and Stanford initially could be at a disadvantage. 

"We could be as competitive as anyone in the country at the end of the year," Hambly said. "It just depends on how fast we can get to being competitive early. With a lot of new faces, that's going to be the challenge. 

"I have a lot of faith and trust in our team. They've handled everything amazingly well."