PITTSBURGH -- Recruiting is part science, part instinct, part hope, part luck. A coach might get a group of athletes who are highly rated and at different positions, but it's far from automatic that they'll jell into a good team, let alone a great one.
But it happened for Stanford, which won the program's ninth NCAA women's volleyball title Saturday night with a 3-0 victory over Wisconsin. The Cardinal were as unstoppable as an express train in this match, and actually through most of the NCAA tournament. All of their matches were sweeps, except a five-set nail-biter against Utah in the regional semifinals.
Once they got to the final four, there was no way the Cardinal -- led by tournament most outstanding player Kathryn Plummer -- were going to be denied. Plummer had 22 kills, 10 digs and 4 blocks Saturday. As Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield put it, Plummer was "threading needles. She's got the Midas touch a little bit."
"I wanted to go out strong, last time playing with these amazing teammates of mine," said Plummer, who finished third all time in kills at Stanford with 1,953. "Kind of just wanted to do it for them."
It's the third NCAA title in four years for outside hitter Plummer, setter Jenna Gray, opposite Audriana Fitzmorris and libero Morgan Hentz, who came together in the summer of 2016 and leave as one of the best classes in NCAA Division I volleyball history. They went 121-16, with seven of those losses in their freshmen season. They won three Pac-12 championships.
Only Penn State (2007-2010) has won four NCAA titles in a row; this Cardinal group matches Stanford's success in 1994-97 with three national championships in four years. Stanford the past four seasons has gone 23-1 in the NCAA tournament. The loss was in the 2017 national semifinals when the Cardinal fell to Florida 15-10 in the fifth set.
Stanford assistant coach Alisha Glass Childress was Penn State's setter for three of their four titles in a row, so she can put in perspective how difficult what the Cardinal have done really is.
"It's so challenging, because once you win one, you have a target on your back and you're going to get everybody's best," said Glass Childress, who went on to be an Olympian. "And you get lots of attention, and the pressure just mounts. I think these players have felt that and been able to respond."
Stanford and Penn State are the only programs that have played in every NCAA volleyball tournament, and the Cardinal have the most trips to the final four (23) and championships. But these seniors came in the season after Stanford hit a low: being swept on its home court in the NCAA second round by Loyola Marymount in 2015.
"To be able to play with our best friends for one more time. I think this one's a little bit sweeter because it's our last time together. Kind of the cherry on top." Kathryn Plummer
And there had been a lengthy stretch before when the Cardinal kept coming up short of a championship. Stanford won its sixth title in 2004. Then in 2006, '07 and '08, the Cardinal fell in the NCAA final. In 2010 and '13, they lost five-set matches in the regional final. In 2014, Stanford lost in the national semifinals to Penn State.
But the tide turned with the recruits of 2016. Plummer, Fitzmorris and Hentz are more on the quiet side, although they've all blossomed and moved beyond their comfort zone. Gray is the extrovert who Hentz said lights up every room she walks into. They've complemented one another perfectly on and off the court.
"It's been fun to watch their growth over the four years," said Kerri Walsh Jennings, who won NCAA titles at Stanford in 1996 and '97, and has three gold medals and one bronze in Olympic beach volleyball. "They're such a physical class, they're so smart. And they've grown their level of confidence. The way they've stuck together through tough times, weathered it, and excelled, is just beautiful."
"A lot of classes are really talented or ranked really high, but very few come together like this," said coach Kevin Hambly, who took over after the coach who recruited them, John Dunning, retired after their freshman season. "People think it just happened and it's really easy. All of them have worked really hard."
Plummer is from Aliso Viejo, California, and was national player of the year as a sophomore and junior. She missed 10 matches because of injury this season, which made her ineligible for postseason awards. If anything, though, that seemed to motivate her even more in the NCAA tournament, during which she averaged 6.75 kills per set. A 6-foot-6 power, she also has learned the skill part of being an outside hitter.
"She's a lot more comfortable on the left side, and she has so many different shots now," Gray said. "She hides her off-speed shots so well, and her roll shots she's hitting exactly every time. Her toolkit has just grown immensely. She could probably hit through most people, but she chooses to keep the defense on their toes."
Wisconsin All-American middle blocker Dana Rettke, who was limited to seven kills and a .158 hitting percentage Saturday, had plenty of praise for Plummer.
"She's just an incredible attacker," Rettke said. "She has such great court vision and can see the things that we really couldn't see, I guess, at times. She's an amazing, amazing player."
Hentz is from Lakeside Park, Kentucky, part of greater Cincinnati, and her job has been digging the country's best hitters. She had 40 digs at this final four and finishes her career as Stanford's all-time leader in that category with 2,310.
Gray and Fitzmorris have been together the longest: They're from suburban Kansas City and played high school and club volleyball for four years before coming to Stanford.
As 12-year-olds, both attended the 2010 final four in Kansas City, when Penn State completed its four-peat. Fitzmorris recalls leaving that final in awe and then putting up a Penn State volleyball poster in her bedroom, but she went to Stanford. She had eight kills and three blocks Saturday, ending her career with 613 blocks, fifth on Stanford's all-time list.
Gray, who finishes second all time in assists at Stanford with 5,485, was on the all-tournament team with Plummer and Hentz. Gray is the natural comedian of the group, and had the perfect answer when asked which of the three NCAA titles she won was her favorite.
"I'd say what my mom always says about us when I ask who the favorite child is," said Gray, who is one of three children. "She's like, 'I don't have favorites, but I do like a certain one more at different times.' So I'd say right now I like this one a lot."
The Cardinal's "fab four" had great support, too. Another senior, graduate student Madeleine Gates, spent her last season at Stanford after three at UCLA. She fit in very well at middle blocker and had 10 kills and two blocks in the final. Junior outside hitter Meghan McClure (seven kills, 13 digs) and sophomore middle blocker Holly Campbell (three kills, five blocks) were also key to Stanford's success.
Now the seniors go their separate ways. Plummer has graduated and will soon start playing professionally. She has Olympic aspirations, with top-level talent in both indoor and beach.
"She's right on track," Walsh Jennings said. "If she wants it, the world is hers. She has so many options."
Fitzmorris hopes to play professionally and then attend medical school. Hentz also wants to give the pro game a try.
Gray will take a little breather and then start training again in javelin, in which she also has been an All-American the past three years. She aims to compete in the NCAA championships and Olympic trials, and see how far she can go in track and field before likely returning to play volleyball as a pro.
Stanford volleyball was one of the best programs in all of college sports before this group arrived. Yet these players raised it to even greater heights.
"We set out for this to be our goal this season," Plummer said of another title. "Just like every other season, but to be able to play with our best friends for one more time. I think this one's a little bit sweeter because it's our last time together. Kind of the cherry on top."