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Stanford, Wisconsin ready to share big stage for NCAA volleyball championship

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Stanford set to square off vs. Wisconsin in women's volleyball final (2:29)

Paul Sunderland and Karch Kiraly break down Stanford's victory over Minnesota to advance to the women's volleyball national championship against Wisconsin. (2:29)

PITTSBURGH -- Stanford's Kathryn Plummer sat at a back table at Friday's American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Awards banquet, far from the spot in the front where she had been the past three years with other All-Americans. Plummer, the AVCA national player of the year the past two seasons, was out because of injury for 10 matches in October and early November, which meant she didn't qualify for postseason honors as a senior.

To be eligible, a player must appear in 66.7% of her team's regular-season sets played. Plummer played 65 of Stanford's 100 sets: 65%. It was that close.

But for Saturday's NCAA championship match against Wisconsin (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App), Plummer won't be taking a back seat to anyone. She'll be front and center as the Cardinal try to win the program's ninth NCAA title.

"I understand the rule," Plummer said of the eligibility requirements. "It's obviously a bummer, but it's kind of pushed me in a way. I think in the postseason, I've just sort of wanted to show my stuff and prove a point."

She has done that, averaging 6.65 kills per set in Stanford's five NCAA tournament matches thus far. Plummer had 26 kills, nine digs and five blocks in the Cardinal's sweep of Minnesota in Thursday's semifinals.

Across the net, though, will be a type of player the 6-foot-6 Plummer doesn't face very often in matches: someone taller than her. Wisconsin junior middle blocker Dana Rettke is 6-8 and, like Plummer, has been terrific through the postseason, averaging 3.79 kills and 1.49 blocks per set.

Plummer and Rettke could potentially play for Team USA in the Olympics at some point, and having stars at their level in a championship match is what every sport wants for its marquee event. There are also other intriguing storylines going into the final.

For Wisconsin, it could be a program breakthrough: the Badgers' first NCAA title.

"Our team's not going to flinch," Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. "I know them well enough to know. Now, that doesn't mean that we're going to win. That other team on the other side of the net is a special team. They'll come in with a lot of confidence. [But] I'd be surprised if the stage is too big for our group, either."

For the Cardinal, it's a chance to add one more to the program's eight national championships, the most in Division I, and win a third title in the past four years.

That would be the perfect ending for a "senior" group that technically has seven members, one being a redshirt junior and another a graduate transfer. The "core four" of that class -- Plummer, setter Jenna Gray, opposite Audriana Fitzmorris and libero Morgan Hentz -- have been key players throughout their four seasons at Stanford.

And one of the biggest victories they ever earned came against Wisconsin three years ago. Down 0-2 to a senior-led team of Badgers in a regional final at Wisconsin, the Cardinal clawed their way back and won in five sets. That ended Stanford's 12-year absence from the final four -- a long time for a program this great -- and the Cardinal then won the 2016 NCAA title.

"I feel like that match kind of started our outlook of 'one point at a time,'" said Gray, who was honored with Hentz at Friday's banquet as an AVCA All-American for the third time. "If you look at being down 0-2 at Wisconsin, that's a really scary thing to face. But if you just play and move on to the next point, it's easier. Over our four years, we've said that a lot.

"For our class, that match was a really good moment to prove to us that we can hang with the big dogs."

Indeed, since that match, Stanford has been the big dog. This group's lone loss in the NCAA tournament thus far came in the 2017 national semifinals in five sets to Florida. In short, this is a team with a ton of experience in big matches. Stanford knows it's important to not get too hyped up playing in a final.

"It's the same net, same size of the court, same ball," Fitzmorris said. "And I think the team that can be comfortable with that idea and kind of get into their level of game the earliest can succeed."

"That other team on the other side of the net is a special team. They'll come in with a lot of confidence. [But] I'd be surprised if the stage is too big for our group, either." Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield

Even though none of the current Badgers have played in an NCAA final -- Wisconsin's appearances were in 2000 and 2013 -- they haven't looked uncomfortable at any time in this tournament. They have dropped only one set. And even after that happened against Baylor in Thursday's semifinals, Wisconsin quickly regained control of the match.

"We're just feeling good vibes right now," Wisconsin senior libero Tiffany Clark said. "I think we're on a roll. We have our rhythm, and we're just having fun with the game."

Clark's prowess against Baylor -- she had 18 digs -- was a big part of a defensive effort that eventually just wore out the Bears. And Wisconsin's serving also took a big toll on Baylor; the Badgers had nine aces and kept the pressure on through their serves. Sheffield said the Badgers' serving last season, when they lost in the NCAA regional final to Illinois, wasn't good enough.

"We had too many people that were just not putting in tough balls, just blowing bubbles out there," Sheffield said. "And against elite teams, you've got to get that setter on the run. So it's been a massive emphasis of ours to be one of the better serving teams."

Rettke, along with everything else she does well, is also a strong server. She has 38 aces this season, three coming in Thursday's semifinal. Part of what makes Rettke so good overall is she's a 6-8 player who "moves around like she's my height," the 6-1 Gray said in admiration. "She's really quick, and she works so hard to get up in transition. She is such a talented player."

Sheffield said of Rettke, "The height isn't her thing. It certainly helps her; there's no doubt about it. But she would be an All-American if she was 4-5 inches shorter. She's an incredible athlete, a unique competitor and unbelievable learner."

Rettke was honored Friday as a first-team All-American for the third time; with one season left, she's already one of the Badgers' all-time greats. But she has a chance to be part of something historic if Wisconsin is able to win Saturday.

The Cardinal are seeking their own history, though, as they attempt to match the stretch from 1994 to 1997 when Stanford -- led by volleyball/basketball star Kristin Folkl -- also won three national championships in a four-year span.

Stanford coach Kevin Hambly wasn't with the Cardinal for the 2016 title; he took over for John Dunning, who retired after that season. But Hambly has spent three years with the seniors, and is savoring every moment of coaching them.

"This group worked really well together," Hambly said. "They complemented each other in things on and off the court, and worked really hard to be great volleyball players."