Any win is welcomed, but is a win against Stanford, a school with nine NCAA volleyball championships, especially satisfying?
“Oh, gosh, yeah,” All-American setter Ella May Powell said after Washington’s impressive 25-22, 25-23, 25-17 victory over the Cardinal on Sunday in front of a season-high 3,186 at Alaska Airlines Arena. “They’re a team we always love to compete against.
“That’s a pretty historic rivalry that a lot of fans and people in this program enjoy being part of,” she said. “There’s no bad blood there at all. It’s just really good volleyball back and forth.”
Since Washington broke through as a national power, upsetting the Cardinal in an NCAA regional semifinal in 2003, Stanford has been used as an unofficial measuring stick for the competitive status of UW’s program.
The two have either won or shared the Pac-12 title (Stanford five times, Washington four) since 2012, and judging by Sunday’s result — UW’s eighth straight win after two September losses at the start of conference play — the 10th-ranked Huskies (15-3 overall, 8-2 and tied for the Pac-12 lead) look strong and poised to get even better.
“Certainly that’s the match we’ve been looking for for a while now, just in terms of defensive execution and in being good at all phases of the game,” said UW coach Keegan Cook. “As equally frustrated as we’ve been at times, I want the athletes to be as equally proud of the performance today.”
After winning national titles in 2018 and 2019, the 15th-ranked Cardinal (12-6, 7-3) is a young but talented group still rebuilding from a 2020 campaign disrupted by COVID-related interruptions. Fifth-year coach Kevin Hambly concedes UW’s maturity makes Washington a formidable opponent.
“They’re experienced and they play really good volleyball,” Hambly said. “We got them out of system quite a bit, actually, and had some opportunities, but they were good out of system. In every aspect they were better than us, especially offensively. They just look like a team that’s been to a Final Four and knows how to execute at a high level in a big match. We’re still learning that stuff right now.”
The Huskies, who never trailed by more than two points all afternoon, hit a robust .348, with fourth-year outside hitter Claire Hoffman leading the UW attack with 14 kills on 20 swings and just three errors (.550).
Fifth-year OH Samantha Drechsel finished with 10 kills, second-year outside Emoni Bush recorded eight, and fourth-year middle Marin Grote had seven kills with just one error on eight attacks (.750).
Fifth-year middle Lauren Sanders, a Glacier Peak grad, had seven blocks (one solo, six assists), four of them coming in the final set when she logged her 600th career block, the most at UW since the rally scoring system was adopted in 2001. She also recorded five kills.
“She showed the best of what she can do on both sides of the ball,” Cook said of Sanders.
UW outblocked Stanford 12-7, had more digs (43-28; Lauren Bays and Sianna Houghton had 11 each) and held the Cardinal to .194 hitting. The Huskies finished strong in two tight early sets, leaning on three Drechsel kills during a 4-1 run to close out the first set, and back-to-back kills by Hoffman to win the second set after Stanford had tied it 23-23.
What impressed Cook the most? “Quality touches at the net and defensive effort behind it,” he said. “It’s been absent for lots of matches. We haven’t been great defensively at the net or behind it, and today both of them showed up against some really talented attackers. That defense led to offense, and all of a sudden it looks like the Huskies again.”
The win was the fourth straight UW victory over Stanford dating to 2019 and its first sweep of a Cardinal team since 2009. The Huskies head into the second half of the Pac-12 season on a strong note.
“I’m happy how we’re growing as a team right now,” Powell said.
Courtney Thompson coaches as Stanford assistant
A familiar face was in an unfamiliar location Sunday. Former UW All-American setter Courtney Thompson, a key figure on UW’s 2005 championship team, had a seat on the Stanford bench as an assistant coach.
“After playing for so long (last playing on the U.S. national team in 2016), I just really needed a break,” she said. “I always thought I would want to coach, and I wasn’t quite ready. Finally, after about five years, I felt, OK, I can really give this everything I have.
“I went down to Pepperdine and was helping with their men’s (team), to see if I really wanted to do this thing, if coaching was really it for me. The opportunity came here at Stanford, and I jumped at it. I’m loving it. I’m grateful to be back in the game.”
Is it odd to be on the other school’s bench in this arena? “It’s a little surreal,” she said. “This is home to me. I’m grateful to be here.”