Sports

Kansas City, here they come: Stanford reaches Final Four

 
Kathryn Plummer was named regional MVP after recording 19 kills in Stanford's three-set sweep of Texas on Saturday night. Photo by Al Chang/isiphotos.com.

Audriana Fitzmorris and Jenna Gray played together at St. James Academy in Lenexa, a city that is part of the Kansas City Metropolitan area. They came to Stanford together and they'll be returning to Kansas City next weekend to play in the NCAA Women's Volleyball Final Four.

"During my senior year in high school, a friend told me she had heard the Final Four would be in Kansas City during my sophomore year," Gray said. "So that's been on my radar for a couple of years. I've been getting texts from friends the past few days telling me they already bought tickets, so we better make it."

Fitzmorris remembers, as a freshman in high school, watching the 2010 Final Four in Kansas City, Missouri where Penn State beat California in the championship match, and thinking how much fun it was.

Gray and Fitzmorris helped overall No. 3 seed Stanford qualify for the Final Four with a 25-21, 25-21, 25-21 victory over sixth-seeded Texas in the regional final at Stanford on Saturday in a rematch of last year's national championship match.

"I thought it was a tough draw," Stanford coach Kevin Hambly said. "When you look back to August, all the magazines were talking about Wisconsin, Texas and Stanford. We were all in the conversation. It was a tough road and these guys earned it. We grew because of it."

The fourth-ranked and defending national champion Cardinal (30-3) meets third-ranked and second-seeded Florida (29-1) in one of the semifinals on Thursday at the Sprint Center. Top-ranked and top-seeded Penn State (33-1) takes on fifth-seeded and fifth-ranked Nebraska (30-4). The Huskers handed the Nittany Lions their only loss.

No other team had a tougher road to travel than Stanford, though being able to play at home certainly helped. In fact, only Nebraska traveled for the Sweet 16.

The Cardinal needed to beat three nationally ranked teams to reach the Final Four in No. 23 Colorado State, No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 2 Texas. Florida needed to beat No. 17 UCLA and No. 14 USC. Nebraska needed to beat No. 5 Kentucky and Penn State needed to beat No. 12 Michigan State.

Kathryn Plummer was named tournament MVP after recording 19 kills on a .304 hitting percentage.

"She carried a big load and came through at big moments but this team is not about one person," Hambly said. "Everybody needs to do their role."

Plummer was joined by Gray and libero Morgan Hentz on the all-tournament team.

"She gives us opportunities that no other setter in the world can do," Plummer said of Gray. "She lets us be the stars and she doesn't get as much credit as she deserves."

Fifth-year senior Merete Lutz played her final match at Maples Pavilion and made it special by recording the kill to end the match and then grabbing the band leader's baton to do a little celebrating afterward with her teammates.

"Stanford served very well," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. "We could never get our serve-pass system at a high level. It was a challenging night."

Elliott said the Longhorns (27-3) wanted to control Lutz, which they did, holding the 6-8 middle to a .125 hitting percentage.

"We weren't controlling the ball though," Elliott said. "That's the reason the wheels came falling off. Plummer, I believe, is heading for a national Player of the Year award. She has every shot in the book, has great wrists and great vision. There's no way you can stop Kathryn Plummer unless she's having an off-night."

Elliott said the Final Four was "up for grabs because you have so many different styles."

Texas, USC and UCLA are the three common opponents between the Gators and Stanford and both went undefeated against them.

"Florida has a lot of talented players but Stanford matches up with them," Elliott said. "When they played Penn State earlier in the season I don't think they were at full strength."

Lutz missed the first five games of the season with an injury. She's not about to miss the final one.

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