2003 Women's Volleyball Preview

Many Stanford fans are wondering about the state of Stanford women's volleyball as the embark on Year One of the post-Logan Tom era, but these nationally ranked netters are just fine - thank you. Junior Ogonna Nnamani is set to elevate her game to another level outside, while seniors will dominate in the middle. There are unknowns about the setting and defense, plus a vaunted freshman class to consider. Read on for a slew of answers and insights.


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Players
Seniors: Sara Dukes, 6'1", OPP/MB; Jenn Harvey, 6'5", MB; Sara McGee, 6'3", MB; Anna Robinson, 6'2", S

Juniors: Jamie Brownell, 5'8", DS/L; Leahi Hall, 5'9", DS/L; Jennifer Hucke, 6'1", OH; Ogonna Nnamani, 6'1", OH

Sophomores: Katie Goldhahn, 5'11", S; Courtney Schultz, 6'1", OH/L

Freshmen: Michelle Mellard, 6'3", MB; Njideka Nnamani, 5'9", L/S; Kristin Richards, 6'0", OH; Lizzie Suiter, 6'2", MB; Jennifer Wilson, 5'11", MB

Players Lost
Ashley Ivy, 6'0", OPP; Logan Tom, 6'1", OH; Lindsay Yamasaki, 6'2", DS/OH

Returning Starters: 4

2002 Season Record: 32-5 (NCAA National Runner-Up)

 

It is no doubt that Olympian Logan Tom has made her mark in Stanford Athletics. Not only did she start for the National Team at the mere age of 16, she also was the only collegiate athlete to be named to the 2000 Olympic Volleyball squad. The four-time First Team AVCA All-American graduated last year with a slew of honors, including the Pac-10 Player of the Year (2001 and 2002) and the AVCA National Player of the Year (2001 and 2002). With her departure, the obvious question is, how will Stanford fare this year without their All-World Player?

"Logan is one of the all-time great players and rightly so, proving it internationally and in the pro leagues right now," says third year head coach John Dunning. "You have to realize that there is no replacing Logan. But that's one of the magical things about teams: you find another way."

Luckily for Dunning, he has many returning and incoming players with the ability to step up their game for the Cardinal. Leading the way are Stanford's two returning All-Americans, junior outside hitter Ogonna Nnamani and senior middle blocker Sara McGee. With Tom gone, Nnamani and McGee will be the cornerstone of the Cardinal offense this year and will be looked upon as the go-to players during crunch time. To support the efforts of Nnamani and McGee are the two remaining starters from last year's 32-5 squad, seniors Jenn Harvey and Anna Robinson. These four players will form a solid foundation that is capable of winning a record sixth national title in New Orleans.

In addition, Stanford welcomes a talented freshmen class that includes last year's National High School Player of the Year, Kristin Richards. Richards becomes Stanford's sixth high school national player of the year in the last 10 years (Richards, 2002; Nnamani, 2000; Tom, 1998; Sara Sandrik, 1997; Kerri Walsh, 1995; Kristin Folkl, 1993), a testament to the strong recruiting efforts of long-time assistant coach Denise Corlett. While the other four freshmen, Njideka Nnamani, Michelle Mellard, Lizzie Suiter and Jennifer Wilson, are not expected to have an immediate impact, Dunning feels this is a class that will contribute to the Stanford legacy.

"This is a class that is athletic enough to have an impact. This is a class that will play. Kristin is the only one with the experience that's enough to help us out immediately. The others are going to be good; they just don't have the experience right now."

Losing Tom, Ashley Ivy and Lindsay Yamasaki to graduation not only left a void in the frontrow, but a considerable one in the backrow as well. All three were instrumental in the Cardinal's passing and defensive schemes. Tom had regular nights of double-digit digs while playing amazing defense, while Ivy and Yamasaki were instrumental in stabilizing the passing rotations. Passing and backrow defense was often the Achilles Heel of an otherwise dominant Cardinal team and fans now wonder if the backrow play will plague them again this year. In addition, both Ivy and Tom finished in the Top 5 of Stanford's All-Time career service aces, as each possessed a wicked jump serve. Although the loss of these three players may seem a bit much, Dunning is confident this year's squad will be able to improve upon not only its backrow play, but also its serving.

"For different reasons, different things, defense wasn't our perfect skill last year. Since the spring, we have worked on our defense and we are a far improved defensive team. Defensively, we have a chance to be much, much better than last year."

"We made it as a goal as a team that everyone had to serve better. You had to find an effective way to become a better server or else it will penalize the team. So they all worked very hard at it. You don't replace Ashley and Logan from the service line; you just do better as a group."

With an improved defensive intensity to complement its potent offense, Stanford is set to do battle with the likes of USC, Florida, Hawaii, and Arizona, as the 2003 squad strives to capture another NCAA crown.

Setters

For the 2003 season, Dunning has the luxury of having two top-notch setters compete for playing time. Last year, senior Anna Robinson was the starter for the majority of the season; however, sophomore Katie Goldhahn impressed the coaching staff and was inserted into the starting line-up for a couple of mid-season games. The competition for the starting job will be fierce, as each brings different traits to the court.

Returning for her senior year is the 6'2" lefty Robinson. She is a solid setter who knows how to get the job done and win games. She isn't the fastest player on the court and her sets are not always on target, but she has the heart of a champion and knows how to set Stanford to victory against tough opponents. Her tall frame is an asset when blocking, as she is one of the top returning blockers on the team. In addition, her short serve is deceptively difficult to side-out; although Robinson only served 5 aces last year, her service rotation scored many points, as the placement of the serve caused havoc among Stanford's opponents. Robinson had surgery in the spring, but is recovering nicely and should be able to begin the season without any complications.

Pushing Robinson for the starting position will be Goldhahn, a tough, athletic setter who will enter the season as a greatly improved player after having a productive spring. Goldhahn has some of the softest hands in the game and her quickness allows her to save errant passes. The only element lacking in her game is match experience. However, Dunning didn't see this as a weakness, allowing Goldhahn set Stanford in the middle of the national championship game. Although Stanford eventually lost to USC in four games, it allowed Goldhahn to gain a wealth of experience and a taste of the intensity and pressure of a big-time match.

"Last season, Anna got out of the gates first because she already knew the college game, but all year, Katie was pursuing her, catching her. Coming into this year, they both have experience. They both understand what they have to do in order to get ready for this season. They are both ready for competition and they can both help our team."

Outside Hitter

What is a coach to do when a National Player of the Year graduates? Just replace her with another National Player of the Year candidate. In Stanford's case, Dunning will not have to look far to replace Logan Tom. Junior Ogonna Nnamani has been groomed for greatness ever since she stepped onto the Farm two years ago and with Tom's departure, it will be Nnanami's turn to be "Instant Offense." With slogans like "Show Me the Nnamani" chanting with every kill, Nnamani is a fan favorite and will most likely face a double block every time she takes a swing. Opponents have a right to fear her – she averaged 4.10 kills a game while hitting at a .331 clip. Her athleticism is unparallel, allowing her to get kill after kill over the block. However, Nnamani is not all about getting kills; she has also tremendously improved her blocking technique and should be one of Stanford's top blockers this season. This summer, her offensive prowess landed her a spot on the National Team that played in the Pan America Games in the Dominican Republic. She was an important reason why the Americans came home with the bronze medal.

"I think Ogonna is capable of shouldering a larger part of (the offense) this year. I think her experience with the National Team at the Pan-Ams this summer probably has helped that. She's more confident, more calm. Ogonna has a chance to be, if not the best, then one of the best attackers in the country. She was at the end of last year."

The big question mark surrounding Nnamani, however, is her backrow skills. For the last two years, she has been subbed out of the backrow in favor of a defensive specialist. In the past, Nnamani's passing and digging have been a liability to the team, as opponents exploited her inconsistent ball-handling. This year, she must prove to everyone that she can pass and dig, or else Stanford might be left without a true threat from the backrow.

"Since the end of the season, she and I have talked about the next steps (to becoming a better player). The next important thing for her to help the team is to become an attacker out of the backrow. In order to do that, we had to work on her defense and her serving. My guess is that she is going to play all the way around because we will need her to attack in the backrow. She has become quite a good defensive person."

While Nnamani is set to become the primary outside hitter, the second position is up for grabs. According to Dunning, "Jen Hucke has been waiting two years to play. She's a very skilled all-around player, good defensive player, good server." She's been overshadowed by the play of Tom and Nnamani, but this is her year to shine. Hucke hits one of the hardest balls around and she has a great jump serve. Last year, she also proved she has the ability to pass, starting as the libero in the beginning of last season.

Freshman sensation Kristin Richards will be challenging Hucke for the second outside hitter position. After winning every major high school volleyball award last year, Richards comes to Stanford with the experience and tools necessary to immediately help the Cardinal. "Kristin Richards, the freshman, she has a very high level of experience (from playing with the Junior National Team)," says Dunning. "We expect her to help early in the program this year." The most coveted recruit in this year's incoming class, she has the type of all-around game that will immediately boost the left side for Stanford. She is most notable for the power behind her kills, although there is more to her game than just an incredible arm swing and hard-hitting. She is a very good defensive player and she is adept at passing as well. She also possesses a jump serve that will help Stanford become a more of a force from the service line. If Richards has any weaknesses to her game, it's that she has a tendency to get blocked because her contact with the ball is so low; however, under Dunning's tutelage, she is sure to improve upon that and become a great hitter.

Hucke will most likely get the starting nod at the beginning of the season, due to her experience within the Stanford program, but do not be surprised to see Richards get a lot of playing action. Eventually, the starter at the end of the season will be the better ball handler, as good passing this year will be crucial to Stanford's success.

Like Hucke, senior Sara Dukes has been waiting patiently on the sidelines for her chance to play and be a major force on the court. With the graduation of opposite Ashley Ivy, Dukes will finally get the opportunity to make an impact. A former Junior National Team member, Dukes was converted to opposite after coming in as a middle blocker. Last year, her versatility was apparent as she played at both the middle blocker and opposite positions. She strikes the ball well and her 6'1" frame gives the right side of the court a tall, blocking presence.

Pushing Dukes to start at opposite could be sophomore Courtney Schultz. A former Fab 50 player out of Los Angeles, the ex-middle blocker spent most of her frosh year as the starting libero. During practices, Schultz played on the outside, providing depth to the Cardinal, which could be an indication that Dunning may have Schultz play the right-side if Dukes is injured or not playing well. Also adding to the mix is Ogonna Nnamani's sister, Njideka. While this precocious freshman is only 5'9", she has an incredible vertical, allowing her to get her fair amount of kills. She is also a smart attacker, able to tool off the block for kills.

Middle Blocker

By the time she graduates, senior Sara McGee could be one of the best middle blockers to wear a Cardinal uniform. A starter since her frosh year on the Farm, McGee has blossomed into a physically imposing blocker and smart attacker. Averaging 3.12 kills and 1.39 blocks a game last season, McGee served notice that she is one of the premier middle blockers in America. Her slide attack is feared by all opponents, as she is just as comfortable slamming the ball cross-court as she is hammering it down the line. Her blocking technique is superb, quickly covering the court and blocking what ever the opponent has to throw at her. In addition, she was the nation's most efficient attacker last year. She finished the year with a startling .426 hitting percentage, smashing Wendy Rush's single season record of .400 set in 1987. Returning for her senior year, McGee is looking to dominate the net, once again.

Complementing McGee will be fellow senior Jenn Harvey. Together with McGee, they are the backbone to one of the best blocking teams in the nation. At 6'5", the Colorado native is the tallest volleyball player to don a Cardinal uniform. A full time starter last year, Harvey was able to raise her game and do what she does best: block. She finished the year as one of the nations top blockers, with 1.43 blocks a game. She also is one of Stanford's top returning servers, as she was able to ace the opponent 21 times. Because Tom and Nnamani received most of the sets last year, Harvey's main job was to patrol the net. However, this year she will be looked upon to be a more offensive force in the frontrow. Her arm swing was a bit awkward last year and she didn't have a lot of power to her kills. She's worked hard in the off-season to improve her weaknesses and will be heavily counted on, both on the defensive and offensive end.

The remaining freshmen, 6'3" Michelle Mellard, 6'2" Lizzie Suiter, and 5'11" Jennifer Wilson, will provide much needed depth in the middle this year. In addition, with the graduation of McGee and Harvey next year, Mellard and Suiter are the top two candidates to fill their vacated spots. Mellard is an athletic, physical player and her forte is her blocking. Her hitting technique needs some improvement, though her she great potential to make an impact on the program. Suiter is also a physical player, with the same body type as McGee. She is also a good blocker, but like Mellard, will need to work on her arm swing to improve the accuracy and power of her spikes. Wilson will provide Stanford with another option in the middle.

Libero/Defensive Specialist

The libero position was created to allow teams to improve their passing and ball-control by having a specific player whose sole purpose was to pass and dig. Sophomore Courtney Schultz returns this year as Stanford's most experienced passer and digger, playing in 105 games out of a possible129 last year. Though she was shaky and inconsistent at times, Schultz proved that she belonged out on the court, averaging 2.03 digs a game. She improved tremendously throughout the season and will be an important component in stabilizing Stanford's backrow.

Freshman Njideka Nnamani could challenge Schultz for playing time at the libero position. She is a very good ball handler and is lighting quick. Although she lacks experience, Dunning is confident she will be an important piece to Stanford's success. "(Njideka) is a remarkable athlete, very quick, very powerful and jumps very well. But her experience is something we will have to increase. She is going to have an impact on college volleyball because she is smart, motivated, and talented." Once Nnamani becomes accustomed to the fast-pace of collegiate ball, she has the skill and ability to excel at this position.

Adding to the mix of defender are juniors Leahi Hall and Jamie Brownell. Out of the two, Hall received the most playing time last year while averaging 1.19 digs a game. This year, look for Hall to step in as a defensive and serving specialist when one is needed. Brownell, who took a year off from volleyball her sophomore year, is a player who will contribute greatly to the program with her great work ethic and attitude.

When Stanford lost in a tough 4 set match to a talented USC squad last year in the NCAA final, volleyball fans everywhere saw the Logan Tom era come to an end. Along with it came doubts and questions that filled the minds of every Stanford fan. Critics and fans alike wondered, "How will Stanford survive without Logan Tom?" However, as Stanford has proven time and time again, it is such a solid, proven program that losing a player of Tom's caliber does not mean disaster. Stanford never rebuilds; they simply reload. The Cardinal has demonstrated that even losing such players such as Kristen Klein, Kim Oden, Bev Oden, Lisa Sharpley, Kristin Folkl, and Kerri Walsh, it is still able to win year after year and build upon its winning legacy. Dunning feels that this year is no exception.

"You want to have as many individuals step up so it adds to a greater pile of talent. It makes your resources grow when you have many people step up. That indeed is what is happening (this year)."

With great players returning this season, Stanford will not fall far from the volleyball podium and will be a threat to win yet another National Championship, even without Logan Tom.


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