After a miss last season, Stanford volleyball chases title

<p>
              In this Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, photo, Stanford volleyball coach Kevin Hambly gestures while speaking with player Kathryn Plummer during a workout in Stanford, Calif. Stanford is riding a 26-game winning streak and just completed a 20-0 run through Pac-12 play to become the conference's first undefeated team since Southern California in 2003. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
            </p>

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Every practice, Kevin Hambly writes out his Stanford volleyball starting lineup on the white board — just so there’s no question, even though the women usually have a pretty good idea already.

If they miss a serve during drills, Hambly calls for another one, an easy one — just to keep things going and to get the needed repetition before moving on.

Good-natured setter and team jokester Jenna Gray gives him a hard time about all of it, especially inquiring about whatever is written on the board just to make sure Hambly is on top of all his stuff.

“We’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, OK, we get it,'” said Gray, the Pac-12 Setter of the Year for a second straight season. “We know, but he still has to write it every single time.”

That fine attention to detail and the razzing certainly have become a winning combination: Stanford (28-1) earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament starting Friday night with its opening match against Alabama State at home in Maples Pavilion.

His laid-back team may tease him for it, yet Hambly’s players also greatly appreciate the second-year coach’s preparation style that contrasts their silliness. He just won Pac-12 Coach of the Year, too.

“Jenna loves to tease me. She keeps it light all the time, and I love it,” Hambly said, taking a rare seat in his office that features a stand-up desk as wife and director of operations Mary works right outside. “It makes me laugh. She’ll give me a hard time, which I like that. I’m more used to that than not getting a hard time.”

Hambly arrived on The Farm from Illinois before last season accustomed to packed arenas for volleyball around the Big Ten — 8,000 at Nebraska, 7,000 at Wisconsin, nearly 5,000 at Minnesota — and he realizes the Pac-12 may never have that same following but has high hopes of boosting volleyball’s profile on the West Coast as he puts his mark on the storied Stanford program.

“We’re trying to change it here and it’s going to take some time,” he said. “There’s got to be a paradigm shift in the way we look at things.”

With Gray, two-time reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer and two-time conference Libero of the Year Morgan Hentz leading the way, Stanford is riding a 26-game winning streak and just completed a 20-0 run through Pac-12 play to become the conference’s first undefeated team since USC in 2003.

Gray and her teammates know the task at hand, top seed aside. The Cardinal lost in a five-set NCAA semifinal last December and are chasing a championship this time.

“We’ve had kind of smaller stepping-stone goals throughout the year. Winning the Pac-12 was one of them and then getting the No. 1 seed and getting to host was another one. Now all we have left is kind of the big one, the national championship,” Gray said. “We’re just trying really hard to not look past, there’s still five games we need to win before the national championship.”

Hambly is in a rhythm with this group having had more than a full year with his team. After taking the job in early 2017, more than half of the women were in their beach volleyball season and didn’t get significant time back indoors with Hambly until May.

Now, they’re all on a roll and have a comfort level together. Still, Stanford hardly could have expected the perfect record in Pac-12 play.

“Definitely going into the second year we’re all just a lot more confident and trusting of each other,” Gray said. “There’s not too many times when there’s a sold-out arena that we’ll be playing in, so I think it’s good because then we’re just used to relying on each other for energy than trying to rely on a crowd to get us hyped up. So I don’t mind it. We always make jokes on our team, we’re not super big and rowdy before games, our locker room is usually pretty laid-back. I think it’s just because we have quite a few Type-A people on our team so we like to think about what we need to get done. I think that’s also helpful because we’re not just riding an emotional rollercoaster, we’re pretty steady instead.”

After last season ended, Stanford identified ways to better communicate and deal with confrontation — not to mention playing better defense.

Even with all the focus on a championship after what they considered a missed opportunity last year, the Cardinal make a point to have fun when they play.

Once when a television analyst made reference to a “junior high dump” by Gray, Hambly had a little fun with it later.

“She had some dump that was terrible and I think I said something like ‘that was an elementary school dump, let’s at least make it a junior high dump,'” he recalled. “She just laughed. There’s good banter that goes on. It’s hard to remember all the things but there’s good banter. I like that. It’s fun. We’re keeping it light. I feel like the teams that I’ve coached, once they get to know me, I’ve been that way.”