Inky Ajanaku had 18 kills, Kathryn Plummer added 16 and Stanford, led by four freshman starters, beat Texas 25-21, 25-19, 18-25, 25-21 on Saturday night in the NCAA women’s volleyball Championship in Columbus, Ohio. The Cardinal (27-7) won 16 of their last 17 matches to complete an unlikely championship run with their four freshman starters: Plummer, Audriana Fitzmorris, Jenna Gray and Morgan Hentz.
As you may recall, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Denver fell to the same Stanford Cardinal in three sets in Palo Alto 25-12, 25-22 and 25-20. While Denver was punished in the first set, the following two sets were extremely competitive with Denver pulling even, 17-17, in both sets before Stanford pulled away. Heck, DU even scored more points in their final two sets than Texas did.
This is not to say that Denver is as good as Stanford or Texas. But DU has demonstrated significant improvement over the last several years that show the Pioneers have the potential to be a national force. And with 334 Division I volleyball programs in the land, that will be no easy task.
With the graduation of a solid senior class that included Nola Basey, Moni Corrujedo, Monique Domme, Ruth Okoye, and Kelly Morton, the Pioneers (23-9) may even take an early season dip next season as they adjust. DU will be returning their most dominant player Kayla Principato (Right side hitter), a solid middle blocker in Emma Willis, the team’s most improved player, outside hitter Becca Latham, and their outstanding starting libero Cassidy Rooke. Some younger players such as 6’4″ freshman Shannon Geraty are also expected to step up.
The staff has signed four players for next season which include Ellie Anderson-one of the top setters in the nation, outside hitter Lydia Bartalo from Colorado Springs, Tina Boe whose select team won a USA volleyball team championship, and 6’7″ local Jaden Sandoval has the intimidating size that DU will need to compete at the next level. And more signings are expected in the spring.
If Denver can continue to harvest some of the best players in the recruiting pool, there is no reason to believe that they can’t elevate the program to the next level – advancing deep into the NCAA Tournament. To do that, the team will need to continue to add size and athleticism – competing against a large number of programs for the same elite players. The Pioneers may need to scour the foreign gyms for prospects as most other major programs do. They will also need some luck. Stanford freshman Kathryn Plummer was an instant difference maker in the Cardinal run to a national title.
Strength-of-schedule is another issue for Denver, especially their non-conference opponents. If Denver plans on taking the next step, it will mean playing non-conference powers, many of which are regional (Creighton, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma), to properly prepare them for the rigors of tournament play.
Head Coach Tom Hogan has DU volleyball close to moving up to the next level – just like Jamie Franks and Bobby Muuss did for men’s soccer over the past few years. Outside of women’s gymnastics and potentially women’s lacrosse (WLAX just posted an incredible recruiting class), Volleyball may be DU’s next women’s team to make national noise.