Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - August 24, 2012

A return to the top a priority

Veteran leadership, top freshmen class a good mix for Stanford

by Rick Eymer

It's time for the Stanford women's volleyball team to make its own history. One of two schools to have participated in every NCAA tournament, the Cardinal has not been to a Final Four since 2008.

In Stanford years, that's like forever. It's not that the Cardinal has played poorly -- the team has gone a combined 72-20 the last three years -- but rather other teams are playing better.

The Pac-12 has the defending national champion in its midst in UCLA, and there's precious few soft spots anywhere in the conference. The Bruins (the ninth seed in the NCAA tournament last year), USC, Washington, Stanford and California can each open their season legitimately thinking of a national title.

There's plenty of competition in the rest of the country too, from Florida to Texas to Penn State to Hawaii. It's the reason volleyball has become more popular. Not many teams can dominate anymore.

Check the roster of the United States women's Olympic team that earned a silver medal in London recently: Long Beach State, Washington, Penn State, Minnesota, USC, Nebraska, Texas and Stanford are all represented. Hugh McCutcheon, the Olympic coach, took over the Minnesota program this year.

So what is a coach to do? If you're John Dunning you schedule yourself four NCAA tournament teams from last year among the first five matches. And you do it with a roster of players who have never stepped foot on the court beyond the Elite Eight.

"We can be one of the best teams," Dunning said. "We can be one of the teams that can win it all. The best feeling is to earn it every day."

Exactly the mentality seniors Karissa Cook, Haley Spelman, Jessica Walker and Hannah Benjamin bring to practice every day.

In terms of postseason accolades and postseason success, this senior class can't share the same hardware of past senior classes, but it is still an accomplished group capable of doing amazing things.

Cook is the unquestioned leader of the group. She recorded 1,279 of Stanford's 1,495 assists last year. She was also second on the team in digs with 355 and fourth in kills with 101.

Cook and junior Carly Wopat were the only Cardinal players who started every match last year.

"I thought the season was great in so many ways," said Cook of a group that finished 22-8 overall and had its season end in the second round of the NCAA tournament. "It all started in China (on a preseason trip). I have never been on a team that has grown so much."

Stanford relied on its defense last year, keeping the ball in play and forcing opponents to make mistakes. Junior Rachel Williams led the Cardinal on offense last year with 488 kills, or 4.32 per set. That ranked her 23rd in the country.

Three other Stanford players reached triple figures in kills in addition to Cook and Williams: Wopat had 357 (3.16), sophomore Lydia Bai had 220 (2.02) and Spelman had 119 (1.83).

The good news is that they are all back this season. In fact, so are Walker (82) and sophomore Morgan Boukather (96), giving Stanford its top seven kills leaders.

"I think we have come a long way," Wopat said. "We grew a lot as a team. How we do this year has to do with last year. Volleyball-wise, we've improved our skills and matured mentally. We're stronger as a team."

Benjamin leads a strong group of defensive specialists. She led the Cardinal with 387 digs last year, while junior Mary Ellen Luck had 219 and sophomore Kyle Gilbert recorded 309.

With so much of the defense and offense returning, Stanford figures to be better than it was last year. Throw in a group of five highly-regarded freshmen and there's even more to like.

"It's rare to have a five-person freshmen class, let along five front row players," Dunning said. "No question they are having an impact. They're good."

They also come from five different states, beginning with Mountain View High grad Brittany Howard and also includes Megan McGehee (Missouri), Inky Ajanaku (Oklahoma), Madi Bugg (North Carolina) and Jordan Burgess (Florida).

"They all came in with such good attitudes," Cook said.

Wopat likes the freshmen class because they've added depth to the middle blocker position.

"We have four of them now and it's great fun," she said. "I think all four have experience, having played for so long. I love all their personalities. They will bring great things to the team."

There will be some sadness as the season opens. Sam Wopat, a promising young player and twin sister of Carly, passed away suddenly during the offseason.

"Personally she will always be in my heart and mind," Wopat said. "Every point, every game, every match I play for her."

Sam was also popular with her teammates and they wanted to include her in everything this season. That's why you'll see the initials 'S.W.' as part of Stanford's uniform and why her locker remains in the clubhouse.

Stanford was picked to finish second in the conference by a vote of the coaches. The Cardinal opens the season ranked sixth in the nation.

Stanford will appear on the Pac-12 Networks a total of 15 times during the regular season, beginning with an exhibition match against Jiangsu, a team from China, on Sept. 5.

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