Stanford volleyball travels to Iowa as NCAA title quest continues

After posting two NCAA tournament wins in the friendly confines of Maples Pavilion last weekend, the top-ranked Stanford women's volleyball team heads to Ames, Iowa, to face Oregon State today — a location and an opponent it knows well.

The Cardinal opened this season at Hilton Coliseum, taking down Iowa State in three games. In two meetings with the Beavers during Pac-12 Conference play, Stanford registered two wins and dropped just one game.

Currently 31-1, Stanford is motivated to erase the bitter memories of consecutive defeats in the NCAA tournament regional final. To reach the final eight this season, the Cardinal will have to get past an inspired Oregon State team playing in its first NCAA tournament since 2001. The Cardinal are 60-0 all time against the Beavers, but Oregon State, which is 6-1 in five-game matches this season, will grow in confidence as play wears on.

The winner of today's match faces either Illinois or Florida on Saturday for a berth in the national semifinals in Oklahoma City.

Pepiot's fast finish: When Academy of Art cross country coach Torrey Olson looked at the 2014 schedule, he noticed the NCAA Division II national championship was a little later than usual.

That anomaly ended up factoring perfectly for junior Valentin Pepiot, a France native who emerged as the Urban Knights' top runner this season. Following a whirlwind recruitment that began this past June, Pepiot didn't arrive in San Francisco until late August. And then, he had to ease into training — a few weeks prior, while on vacation in France, Pepiot had stepped on a sea urchin, and a spike had embedded in his foot.

Pepiot, who burst onto the national scene with a scintillating sixth-place performance at the Stanford Invitational in late September, qualified for the national championships with a 15th-place finish at the West Regional.

Calf problems sustained in midseason sapped much of his speed, but Pepiot still managed to rally for 70th place at the national meet last weekend. He was the top finisher from the PacWest Conference.

USF's Howard bounces back: Rachel Howard began the 2013-14 season with aplomb. As a freshman for the USF women's basketball team, she was named to the all-tournament team at the Cal Poly Classic in November, and became a starter and key component for Dons coach Jennifer Azzi.

But a facial injury sustained midway through West Coast Conference play forced her to wear a mask, and sapped her confidence. She still was named to the West Coast Conference's All-Freshman team, but, as Azzi put it, “When she got hurt, it hurt her a lot and it hurt our team.”

Back to full strength, Howard has begun reapplying her all-purpose impact. Through the first eight games this season, the 5-foot-10 wing and Berkeley High School grad — who led the Dons in blocked shots last season — is averaging 10.4 points and hitting a team-best 37 percent of her 3-pointers. USF has started 6-2 heading into Sunday's game at Seattle University.

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