Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - August 30, 2013

Stanford fired up by failure

Loss to Michigan in regional final fuels the Cardinal

by Rick Eymer

It's not that the Stanford women's volleyball team hasn't been knocked out of the NCAA tournament prematurely (in the Cardinal viewpoint) in the past.

It's just that last year's loss to Michigan, in four sets in the Elite Eight, was particularly nauseating in that, to a person, Stanford felt it could have played better.

"There was a point from where we were on our toes to being on our heels," senior outside hitter Rachel Williams said. "Points were being scored and the match was going by faster than it seemed like we were playing it."

The Wolverines finished in a sixth-place tie in the Big 10 last year and reached the national semifinals as the last Big 10 team standing, with Penn State.

Michigan's season ended with a five-set loss to eventual national champion Texas, which beat Oregon in straight sets in the title match.

Stanford coach John Dunning eloquently described the difference between the top teams as a matter of degrees of separation, microscopic degrees that need to be addressed every day, every moment, leading up to the national championship.

Stanford beat Oregon twice last year and will be playing at Texas next week. The Cardinal knew it had one of the best teams in the nation last year — winning the Pac-12 Conference title is no easy feat — but fell short in one brief moment.

"The loss to Michigan sort of lit a fire in our team," senior middle blocker Carly Wopat said. "It gave us this determination to keep getting better to reach the championship game."

Stanford, which opens it season at UC Santa Barbara on Friday, is once again an elite teams among the best in the nation, with hopes of a national title.

"We have a chance to be as good as we want to be," Dunning said. "We have the chance to win an NCAA title every year."

What makes this a fascinating year is that all seven starters (including the libero) from that Elite Eight team are back, along with four others who saw significant time during Stanford's 30-4 season that included a 19-1 mark in the Pac-12.

Williams and Wopat are joined by fellow returning starters Kyle Gilbert, the junior libero, and sophomores Inky Ajanaku (middle blocker), Madi Bugg (setter), Brittany Howard and Jordan Burgess (both outside hitters). Four of last year's starters were freshmen.

Senior defensive specialist Mary Ellen Luck, junior outside hitters Lydia Bai and Morgan Boukather and sophomore middle blocker Megan McGehee also return.

They will be joined by another highly regarded recruiting class of setter Kelsey Humphreys, outside hitter Grace Kennedy, 6-foot-8 middle blocker Merete Lutz from Germany and 6-4 outside hitter Ivana Vanjak from Croatia.

Humphreys had Cardinal running in her blood her entire life. Her mother, Wendy Rush, was a four-time All-American setter at Stanford and her father, Brad, was a starter for the Cardinal football team.

Kennedy also has strong Stanford connections, including older sister Victoria, who was on the Cardinal women's water polo team.

Humphreys, Lutz and Burgess played together on the U.S. Junior National Team over the summer, with Burgess serving as team captain.

The freshman class, meanwhile, is every bit as talented as last year's freshmen class. That means starting jobs are not necessarily secure, another motivation.

It's the loss to Michigan that overrides everything, at least for the seniors.

"It drove us during the offseason," Luck said. "In the weight room, where you don't necessarily want to be, we worked hard. We've thought about that match every day."

Dunning said he could see the difference from the moment they gathered back together for the first time.

"It made them determined, not just in an amount, but it stayed a reality," he said. "They came in healthy, in shape, and we're able to push each other as hard as we can. They stay focused and they want to find out how good we are."

The offseason also included the first year of sand volleyball, a sport that sounded more fun when you were out there playing. Practice?

"The first practice was a shock," Williams said. "We got out there and were huffing and puffing. It's a lot different than indoor volleyball."

And it might be an additional source of energy for the Cardinal, which found out how grueling sand workouts can get.

"We did one drill in which they would barely break a sweat indoors," Dunning said. "In the sand they were leaning over trying to catch their breath."

With the 11 returning players coming in at an advanced level, it would seem like the freshmen would have some difficulty fitting in. That hasn't been the case.

"We've incorporated the freshmen in every way possible," Wopat said. "From the first day it's been like a whole new team."

Added Williams: "We know we are not going to be as good as we can without them. It's our job to help."

It's that sense of cohesiveness, or team chemistry, that has Dunning, in his 13th year at Stanford and 29th as a Division I coach, excited for the season.

"The people coming back have a good sense of playing together and we are way ahead of where we were," he said. "They have done a great job of doing what they can to get better. The freshmen are talented. Kelsey is good. She's ready just like Madi was when she got here. Madi was the center of the team at the end of the season. She knows there is someone else in the gym who can play her position."

The season, says Williams, will revolve around a few simple things.

"Selflessness, fearless, holding oneself accountable to being the best possible teammate," she said.

This year, there seems to be some substance behind the words.

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