Hambly's move to California good for his family, Stanford program

Hambly's move to California good for his family, Stanford program

MINNEAPOLIS — Kevin Hambly had some expectations about Stanford volleyball when he left Illinois for Palo Alto in January 2017.

There was Stanford's long-term status as a national power. The Cardinal had also just won a national championship with several freshmen — including first-team All-American and Freshman of the Year Kathryn Plummer.

All of that proved to be true. But Stanford also exceeded some of Hambly's other expectations. Everything else about the Cardinal — what Stanford is beyond volleyball — has been just as important.

"The humility combined with the achievement that takes place there is really unique," Hambly said Wednesday afternoon on the eve of a second straight Final Four with the Cardinal. "There's these people doing amazing things. I wasn't sure if it would be some kind of high-brow or looking down peoples' noses. It's completely the opposite of that.

"It's just a really humble, really casual high-achieving place. I really didn't know what I was getting into, but I just love being there and love being a part of the program."

Hambly's decision to leave Illinois after 13 seasons, including eight as head coach, was ultimately about more than volleyball. Sure, the Stanford job was one that probably wouldn't come open again during his career, but the 45-year-old Hambly feels the same way now as he did just shy of two years ago.

The move was good for his family. Being in California and closer to his family was important. So was the school system in Palo Alto for his daughters, Quinn (who was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in 2014) and Maura.

"We loved Champaign," Hambly said. "It was a really hard decision to leave, but it felt like the right move for us at that time — especially with a child that has special needs. We started looking deeper at the schools she would go to.

"All of a sudden, that became kind of the clarifying thing and no-brainer, which I don't think people think about or talk about when talking about coaching moves. They just talk about how many matches can you win, but there's a lot more that goes into it."

Still, the volleyball fit at Stanford has been pretty good, too. Hambly is 62-5 in his two seasons with the Cardinal heading into today's 6 p.m. national semifinal match against BYU. His measured, methodical approach is a fit with what Stanford senior middle blocker Tami Alade said are a bunch of "Type A" players on the Cardinal roster.

"I think he really emphasizes us being competitive — always — when we step into the gym," Alade said. "Just really working to compete. Then I think he also is really great with creating objectives and tangible goals. Having tangible things and tangible goals allows us to have something to work toward."

Sophomore outside hitter Meghan McClure said Hambly has brought out the best in the Cardinal.

"Since he's come, I think all of us have improved ten-fold," she said. "He also prepares us like no one else can for our matches. We know more about the opposing team than we might know about ourselves, and he's good at creating a gameplan that will help us win."

A Stanford win today against BYU, coupled with an Illinois victory against Nebraska in the other Final Four match, would pit Hambly against his former team. He recruited every player on the Illini roster save for freshman defensive specialist Taylor Kuper and junior middle blocker Ashlyn Fleming (a transfer this season from Pacific).

Hambly said he knew when he added a top-10 recruiting class in 2015 featuring Jordyn Poulter, Ali Bastianelli and Beth Prince there would be a couple years of struggles. The Illini missed the NCAA tournament in 2016, Hambly's final season at Illinois. Hambly also said he saw a path back to the top with that group.

"I thought they'd be back in the mix," Hambly said. "Now, it's not easy to get back in the mix. There's a lot that goes into it, but (Illinois coach Chris Tamas) and his staff have done a good job. I thought Chris has done a great job of maximizing their potential and getting the most out of those seniors especially. You hoped it would get there, and it's nice to see them here. I'm excited for them."

Illinois has already faced Hambly once since he left for Stanford. The Cardinal swept the Illini in last year's Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge in front of a sold-out crowd at Huff Hall.

"It would be pretty crazy," Prince said about potentially meeting Hambly and the Cardinal in the national championship. "That first time when Stanford came (to Huff) was really intense. It was a great volleyball match. I know that if we play them, it's just two elite teams battling."