Before this year's NCAA women's volleyball tournament, Stanford coach John Dunning was asked how he figured his team would fare if it reached the regional final.
“You don't know till you get there, but I'd bet on the fact that we'd control the moment well,” Dunning said as Stanford (33-1) prepares to face nemesis Penn State (34-3) in the national semifinals today.
For the past two seasons, the Cardinal's season ended at that stage. In 2012, with freshmen factoring hugely into the rotation, Stanford felt overwhelmed against Michigan. In 2013, the Cardinal battled Penn State and led 9-6 before falling in the dramatic fifth and final game.
That match was motivation this entire offseason. And in 2014, Stanford has been sensational, winning its first 28 matches and earning the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed. The Cardinal dispatched Cal State Bakersfield, Michigan State and Oregon State, earning a matchup with No. 8 Florida in last weekend's regional final.
“We talked a lot about this being the biggest game of our careers,” said junior setter Madi Bugg. “We didn't care about the final four until we won that game.”
“We looked at it as an opportunity,” junior outside setter Jordan Burgess said. “Instead of thinking that everything is on the line, let's enjoy this as much as we possibly can. That's the most fun part of volleyball — taking advantage of every challenge.”
They went out and swept the Gators. Bugg believes it was their best match of the season.
Bugg is a two-time Pac-12 Conference Setter of the Year and leads the nation with 12.11 assists per set. This season, Burgess became the 15th player in Stanford history to amass 1,000 kills. Both were named All-Pac-12 and were among six Stanford players named All-Americans on Wednesday.
Dunning says you could make a lengthy list about what's best about this group, and if often extends beyond the supreme talent and ever-increasing experience.
“These are the people I feel safest around,” Bugg said. “You see each other at your best and at your worst. That's how you make great relationships. They're like my little family.”
The Cardinal have been battle-tested in five five-game matches this season, all of which they have won. Last year, they lost the three five-setters they played in.
“It wasn't an easy road this year,” Bugg said, “but we know we don't have to play perfectly to win. That's not something I felt last year.”
“The skill has always been there,” Burgess said, “but consistency is something we've gotten a lot better at. Most of us have played three years together. We know each other really well. We know what to say when we're having trouble.”
Bugg's mother, Robin, a Hall of Fame player at Tennessee, is struck by the on-court cohesion — Bugg and Burgess in particular. They have known each other since their high school days, and are often placed next to each other during defensive rotations. They share a similar focus and mentality.
“We're good at helping each other play better,” said Burgess. “And Madi can always calm me down or get me out of a funk.”
It's allowed Stanford to embrace today's national semifinal against Penn State as it seeks the program's seventh national title.
“They know they have to finish, and they believe they can,” Dunning said.
Cardinal honored: Bugg and Burgess were joined on the All-America first team by fellow junior Inky Ajanaku. Redshirt freshman Merete Lutz was a second-team selection, while seniors Morgan Boukather and Kyle Gilbert received honorable mention.