Q & A with Women's Volleyball's John Dunning
The Pac-12 women's volleyball season gets underway Wednesday night with a visit from "that team in the East Bay", as Bobby Knight would put it. To get you up-to-date on all things Cardinal volleyball, head coach John Dunning took time after Tuesday's practice to sit down with The Bootleg. Here's what the coach had to say:
The Bootleg: Non-conference play is over. Overall, how do you feel about your 8-2 record in those non-Pac-12 games?
John Dunning: I thought the preseason went really well for us. We were on the road a lot, played some really good teams. We played three pretty darn good teams on their court. I didn't think we rose to the occasion in Hawai'i. I thought Hawai'i did a good job; I thought we could have played better there. I thought we did play better at Penn State; that's just taking on a good team on their home court and that's tough. That's what we wanted to do. Our goal was to know each other, find out more about each other on the court and have to play some tough teams. I think we're happy with where we are in some areas; we know we have some things we need to get better at.
TB: The wrap on the 2011 Cardinal was that they were young. Well, arguably the 2012 Cardinal are even younger with the five freshmen seeing significant time. What were your expectations for your top-ranked recruiting class coming into the year and how have they changed?
JD: I thought last year's team was a talented team and we had some players that were juniors and seniors, but the experience level we had on the court was young because we had gotten the ball to Alix [Klineman] and Gabby [Ailes] and Cass [Cassidy Lichtman] a lot the year before, and we had new people in new roles and so in that respect, we were young. This year, age-wise we're young, but in terms of experience, I think we're much, much older. The ten returning players have been through all that now. They know what they need to do.
They know what the expectations and level of play are like. And the freshman coming in- that's one of the things that I was drawn to all of them- is that they all played key roles on whatever team they played on, and they all played on good teams. We felt there was a good chance they would come into college mature already and in terms of their court sense, it has proven to be that way. They have handled everything that has come their way very well so far and they're growing each day.
TB: Let's talk about a couple of these freshmen, starting with Jordan Burgess. She has been very solid as an outside hitter, but perhaps what's eye-popping to a non-insider is the rate at which she is digging the ball. What makes her so effective when she is in the back row?
JD: For one, she has been coached by good coaches throughout her career so she has a good base. She is a really, really fast reactive athlete, and she's very competitive. If you add those things all up, she is just ready to go.
TB: Inky Ajanaku is another frosh. Every time Kim Oden and I are on the webcast call, she always gushes over Inky's ups. You have a figure on her vertical?
JD: *laughs* Yeah, she's really long. She's pretty tall, she has really long arms, big hands. That sorts itself out really well in the game of volleyball. And she is athletic; she touches pretty high. We'll measure it later on, but it is up there pretty high, there's no doubt. That's why we got goggles on her right away, because she gets her face above the net all the time.
TB: With Karissa Cook out, Inky is receiving sets from a freshman setter in Madi Bugg. How long will it realistically take to get that connection between freshman setter and her hitters? That's obviously something that takes time to develop.
JD: Part of our job is to push it, to do things that help allow it or enable it. But there's also the time on the court- that you have to have that many repetitions on the court in different situations against really good players who don't know you that well, and that's when the connection starts to sort itself out. It's better in practice every day, it's better now than it was the first match, and our hope is that as we continue to grow in experience on the court, that that connection will grow as the year goes.
TB: What is the status of Karissa Cook?
JD: Karissa is coming along. She bruised a bone in her knee; that really hurts, and she is coming back day-to-day. The last two days, she has done more than I thought she would. It's absolutely day-to-day with her. She doesn't need to get back into practice to get back into the games and get up to game speed, so it may be that she could play as early as [tonight against Cal].
TB: Of course, you still have your two main horses from last year in Rachel Williams and Carly Wopat. Rachel was out for a few matches with an abdominal injury, but returned against USF and looked fine. How's she doing, and for those who haven't seen her play, what does she add to the offense?
JD: Rachel is a very explosive athlete. She has a pretty serious ability to get off the ground and she is fast and strong as well. She had in the neighborhood of 500 kills for us last year, so she proved that at this level already, she can terminate. And she played the whole game for us last year in all six rotations. She did that in pain, and she had something she needed to be fixed from birth in her shoulder, so we had that corrected. Her shoulder is fine now. Now it's a matter of working her way back up into shape in terms of playing the game. It's different than just conditioning; you have to play your way back into it a little bit. She's getting there each day, and the most she played was last weekend and we were all really happy with what she did, and I think we're all looking forward to tomorrow.
TB: It was a trying off-season understandably for Carly Wopat, but it has affected her play not at all, averaging right around 1.5 blocks per set. She looks fine, but how has she dealt with the loss of her twin sister Sam, at least around the team?
JD: Carly had a great year last year. She had a knee that was bothering her the whole year, but just a sign of the kind of competitive, determined person she is, she just played through it every day, was an All-American, had statistics that were ridiculous and continued to get better every day. She was one of those people that was at the center of the heart of the team that wants to win. She helps other people around her want to win more every day.
Her family had a tragedy occur with what happened to her sister Sam. She thinks about her every day, we all think about her every day. We all hope for her family to continue to have wonderful memories and celebrate Sam, and have the ability to move forward. That's one of the things that has been in Carly's life; we've dedicated our season to her sister. Everybody in the program misses Sam dearly, we think about her every day. We have reminders of her, her initials are on our uniform and we have a moment of silence for her every game day.
So we know that she is part of our season and will always be part of our lives, and we're just all trying to look forward and continue to bring her memory with us.
TB: Looking ahead to the conference season… 20 matches this year, 22 last year, 18 the year before when it was the Pac-10. How do you like the number 20 for Pac-12 tilts?
JD: The number 18 was actually wonderful. That gave us ten preseason [matches], which really allowed you to go out and test yourself as much as you wanted to in your four preseason weekends. Our conference added two teams, tried a 22-game season, which the basis for that was to have it be fair, so everyone plays everyone on each other's court. And then you look around and six matches against other teams around the country is just not enough, for a variety of reasons, including seeding at the end of the season. So we decided that that wasn't going to work; we didn't want to go less than 20 to start with, so we settled on this, and this year we play everyone twice except Utah and Colorado. Next year it will be a different pair we only play once. It's not as level a playing field as you can get, but it's smart for our conference, and so those two things kind of balance themselves out. And for me, once those things happen, I just try to make the best happen out of where we are.
TB: Cal is up first. The Golden Bears have had your number the past couple of years, what's your assessment of the way your team has played in those recent matches?
JD: The last four or five years, I really began to understand what a great rivalry this is, what it's based in, how people feel about it. So the fact that we've been on the short end of this rivalry for two years doesn't make anyone in our program happy. It's a credit to the fact that their teams have been very good and that it's also a place we can know that a lot of motivation is growing from. We really look forward to playing them; they're always well coached and they have a senior-laden team this year. So the two matches we have with Cal this year and this one coming up are very important to our team. For one, it's a real test, because they're really good. So we're all looking forward to it and hoping to start a new streak, I'd say.
TB: In the Pac-12 opener last year, Cal vs. Stanford was a battle of 1 vs. 2 in the country. This year, Cal is 6-4 and unranked, having lost twice to USF, a team you swept last Friday. I know libero extraordinaire Robin Rostratter is out, but what has been the book on Cal in 2012?
JD: Robin is very important and she has been out, so there's no question that would affect any team. The key thing for them is the change for three years in a row having a new setter. So they had a setter who was a wonderful player who graduated, they had a setter who set last year who retired early and now they have a new setter who transferred in. The three system hitters that they have- the two middles and the opposite- those are the real in-synch positions with the setter. That synchronicity has to happen, and with a new player in that setting position each year, that's really difficult on those three senior players. So they're at the heart of their team, and the more that gets in-synch, the tougher they'll get. I kind of think that's where it's coming from- a really key player hurt and a new player coming in trying to get it going with the offense.
TB: Finally coach, what is it going to take to stop the losing streak at four to Cal?
JD: We're on our home court, we look at it like we have an advantage, we love playing here, and we know that we're starting a new Pac-12 season. The last couple of years, we haven't started off on the right foot, and so we want to step forward with the right foot this time and be tough when they come to our court.