Breathe. Believe. Battle.
That's Kathryn Plummer's motto right now.
"When you're in times of stress or pressure, or you feel overwhelmed, that's a good thing to think about, like, 'I've got this,'" said Stanford's 6-foot-6 sophomore outside hitter. "Take a breath, believe in yourself, and then go out and kick some butt and battle it out to the end."
Plummer did just that when the No. 4 Cardinal lost the second and third sets to No. 19 UCLA on Thursday. She put her squad on her back with a career-high 28 kills, including one on match point, to pull out the five-set win over the Bruins. She also had five digs and four blocks.
The match before, against No. 13 USC, she helped Stanford claim its first Pac-12 title since 2014 by posting a match-high 11 kills.
The Aliso Viejo, California, native earned espnW national volleyball player of the week honors for the performances, in which she averaged 4.88 kills and 5.56 points per set with a .365 attack percentage.
"I think the thing I'm working on the most is trying to be a leader on the court and trying to sustain that calm energy on the court," said Plummer, who leads the Pac-12 with 4.72 kills per set. "It helps us in tough moments when we have to just focus in."
Credit Plummer being a year older, a year wiser; or even credit the release of the new Kygo album, "Kids In Love." (She loves the EDM/pop mixture and blasts it in Stanford's locker room. "It's low-key vibes," Plummer said, "but it gets you pumped up.") In any case, Plummer never has been more determined to help her team repeat as NCAA champions despite one conference blemish vs. No. 13 Washington.
"Having a target on your back means that you're doing something right. And I love that feeling because you know you're going to be challenged every game. People are going to want to come at your throats," Plummer said. "You know everyone's going to be bringing their best when they play you. That brings out the best in us."
We chatted with her about:
Lessons from the Washington loss: "It's always hard to play at Washington. They're a great team; we have a lot of respect for them. But on our side of the floor, we did not play well. We did not win the serve and pass game. We had moments of greatness, but at the same time we also had moments of, 'Oh my goodness. What just happened?' Coming back into practice this week, we focused on having a constant flow of our game, not too many ups and downs. That loss definitely drove us, and it's going to continue to drive us because we might end up meeting them in the postseason."
Becoming more versatile: "I've been working on becoming a true outside hitter because last year I definitely was not that. I was kind of thrown into it as we were trying to figure it out. But this year, I'm working on developing every part of my game and trying to be more well-rounded and not just a person that can hit the ball hard."
Strength of the Pac-12: "The Pac-12 is one of the best conferences in the nation by far. It's a really fun conference because you know every night you're going to get a great game, a great team. This year we've had a lot of success in the Pac-12 because we've won, and that's awesome, but I think that hasn't come without some trials and tribulations."
Nerding out over biology: "I'm undeclared, but I'm taking the core of the human biology major. It's interesting to see how different societies and cultures can affect genes and vice versa, and see how that develops us as humans."
Stanford repeating as NCAA champs: "We have the tools to do it again, it's just coming down to the mindset of believing that we can, because last year, it was hard to win. It's always hard to win, but it's even harder to repeat. We have to have the mentality that, 'OK, we can do it.'"
Stanford (24-3) stayed at No. 4 in this week's AVCA poll. The top three also stayed the same: Penn State, Texas, Florida.
Big Ten Madness
The Big Ten Conference has been hailed as one of the most competitive conferences in the country. Look no further than two big upsets Saturday: Illinois beat No. 7 Minnesota, and Michigan beat No. 15 Purdue for the first time in seven years.
The Illini defeated the Gophers in four, hitting .333 to Minnesota's .190 and holding 71-57 kill and 10-3 block advantages. Jacqueline Quade came up big for Illinois, posting 21 kills and hitting .400 plus 10 digs.
Michigan beat Purdue in four behind Carly Skjodt's double-double of 16 kills and 16 digs. Michigan is on a roll, having swept No. 8 Michigan State in its previous match. It was Michigan's first back-to-back wins over Top 25 opponents since 2015.
Oregon State on a roll
Don't underestimate Oregon State (21-9, 11-7). The Beavers have won 10 of their past 12 matches, including upsetting No. 10 Washington in a five-set thriller Friday. It was the Beavers' first win over a top-10 team since 2012.
A group effort helped OSU pull out the victory, with four players posting double-digit kills, led by senior Mary-Kate Marshall with 15.
"We beat [Washington] twice this year, which we've never done before. That is the validity of this team feeling like they belong in the Pac-12 and they can beat anyone," OSU coach Mark Barnard said. "It really gives us confidence."
OSU then beat Washington State in four, giving the program a sweep of the Washington schools for the first time since 1984.
"This has been one of the best buy-ins that I can remember -- and I've been here for 12 years now -- in terms of making this a priority," Barnard said. "They've done more than talk about doing it. They're living it."
Wednesday's match against UCLA will be a big test.
That No. 1 spot
Penn State has held down the nation's No. 1 spot for six weeks and is riding a 17-match win streak, and not just because it has senior Simone Lee, a strong candidate for player of the year.
The Nittany Lions (27-1) defeated Rutgers on Saturday by holding it to a minus-.082 hitting percentage -- the fifth straight match of holding an opponent to sub-.100 hitting.
Against Rutgers, Kendall White had 15 digs and Haleigh Washington had a match-high five blocks.
After a match at No. 11 Wisconsin on Friday, Penn State closes its regular season Saturday at No. 8 Minnesota.
Keep the streak
VCU owns the nation's longest active win streak at 27 games, beating Dayton in five Sunday to win its first Atlantic 10 championship and first conference title since 2005.
The Rams were led by Vicky Giommarini's double-double of 16 kills and 15 digs, as she won most outstanding performer of the tournament.
"It wasn't really about the streak. It was more important to get to the conference championship and get into the NCAA tournament," coach Jody Rogers said. "We always play like it's 0-0, regardless if we're winning or losing.
"It didn't matter who was on the other side of the net. Our girls just wanted to keep getting better. They did a great job maintaining composure."
VCU got some votes in this week's AVCA poll and is eager to show it belongs in the NCAA tournament.
"The girls are all embracing it," Rogers said. "It's about being a family and trusting we can do this. Why not us, and why not now?"
No. 4 Stanford vs. No. 15 Utah: Wednesday's game will feature two of the Pac-12's top hitters in Plummer and Utah's Adora Anae. Stanford leads the all-time series 13-2 after the teams split the season series a year ago.
No. 1 Penn State at No. 8 Minnesota: Penn State doesn't have an easy end to its regular season, with back-to-back matches against No. 11 Wisconsin on Friday and the Gophers on Saturday. Will the Nittany Lions continue their win streak and withstand the pressure?
No. 2 Texas vs. No. 18 Baylor: Texas will be tested in its Big 12 finale Saturday. Baylor, up a spot in this week's AVCA poll, is on a seven-match win streak. Baylor has already beaten four ranked opponents, including BYU, Iowa State and Kansas.
Selection Sunday! The field of 64, 32 automatic bids plus 32 at-large bids, for the NCAA tournament will be unveiled Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPNU. First-round games begin Nov. 30. Regionals are scheduled for Dec. 8-9, and the final four will be held Dec. 14-16 at Kansas City's Sprint Center.