STANFORD — John Dunning abides by a simple philosophy: You shouldn’t have to lose to learn.
So even as the top-ranked Stanford women’s volleyball team embarked upon the strongest start in program history, winning its first 28 matches this season — 17 of which came against ranked opponents — the Cardinal coach kept his message simple: What could Stanford do each week to get better?
“We could make a long list of what’s good about this group,” Dunning said. “It’s hard to continue to improve, but we’ve stuck with it, trying to be upfront about where we are and what we need to do to get better. This group did a great job with that.”
Such a great job that the Cardinal are the No. 1 national seed entering this weekend’s NCAA tournament at Maples Pavilion.
Stanford (29-1) faces Cal State Bakersfield (16-14) in today’s first round with the winner taking on either Michigan State (18-13) or Loyola Marymount (23-7) in Saturday’s second round.
“There were times when we were winning, but we still realized that we had stuff to work on,” said junior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, who leads Stanford in kills (383) and blocks (124). “We measured our success by how well we executed.”
Ajanaku helps comprise a veteran Cardinal rotation, littered with juniors and seniors, that has played together for multiple seasons. And yet, a knock against the Cardinal is a lack of championship match experience. For the past two seasons, Stanford has lost in an NCAA regional final.
Dunning, who has led Stanford to two national championships (2001, ’04) and three consecutive trips to the championship match (2006-08), recognizes the reasoning behind the skepticism.
“But to get to the final four, you have to win the regional,” Dunning said. “Our team can draw upon that experience from the past two years. They’re motivated, they know now that they have to finish and they believe that they can.”
Currently 29-1, Stanford’s lone blemish came on the road against then fifth-ranked Washington, which defeated the Cardinal in four games on Nov. 26 before a raucous crowd of 8,646.
“It would have been easy to fly back home after losing that match, go away for Thanksgiving, and show up distracted and tired,” Dunning said. “That didn’t happen. They came back focused.”
Said senior outside hitter Morgan Boukather, one of seven All-Pac-12 Conference selections on this season’s team: “We’ve grown in confidence and, yes, we’ve gotten better at certain skills, but it’s been about believing that we could be the team that was standing in the end. [Dunning] always talks about the best team being the one that consistently improves throughout the season. I think that we’ve done that. Everything is coming together, and it’s something special.”
For all Stanford’s skill, what might most set them apart is their propensity for fun. After home wins, each player breaks out a dance move before the fabled school band. Ajanaku lists “funkiness” as the team’s most common trait.
And as junior Madi Bugg, the two-time Pac-12 Setter of the Year whose 12.02 assists per set leads the nation, walked into the locker room ahead of a Tuesday afternoon film session, she lamented the disorderliness of her roommate.
“I spent hours cleaning up after her,” Bugg said of Ajanaku, with a jocular huff.