2004 Women's Volleyball Preview

If you have caught some of the USA Women's Volleyball team on the tube in recent days, the exciting play of Ogonna Nnamani in Athens has to get your blood pumping for the 2004 Stanford season just around the corner. The All-American outside hitter is a superstar, but the fortunes of this squad will also depend on blocking, setting, defense and chemistry. Here is an in-depth preview of what you can expect this fall.

2003 Record: 25-6 (Sweet Sixteen, 2nd Place Pac-10)

Coaches
John Dunning, Head Coach, 4th Year
Denise Corlett, Associate Head Coach, 8th Season
Jason Mansfield, Assistant Coach, 1st Season

Seniors
Leahi Hall, 5'9", L/DS
Jen Hucke, 6'1", OH/OPP
Ogonna Nnamani, 6'1", OH

Juniors
Katie Goldhahn, 5'11", S
Courtney Schultz, 6'1", OPP

Sophomores
Michelle Mellard, 6'3", MB
Njideka Nnamani, 5'9", OH/OPP
Kristin Richards, 5'11", OH
Lizzie Suiter, 6'2", MB
Jennifer Wilson, 5'11", MB

Freshmen
Franci Girard, 6'2", MB
Kirsten Hornbeak, 5'8", DS/L
Bryn Kehoe, 5'9", S/L

Players Lost
Jamie Brownell, 5'8", DS
Sara Dukes, 6'1", OPP/MB
Jenn Harvey, 6'5", MB
Sara McGee, 6'3", MB
Anna Robinson, 6'2", S

For years, the Stanford Volleyball program has always been regarded as a national powerhouse and an annual contender for the Pacific 10 Championship. With the exception of the 2000 season, Stanford has never finished below second place in the Pac-10, a lofty accomplishment for the nation's toughest volleyball conference.

However, according to the 2004 Pac-10 Preseason Coaches Poll, released on August 10th, success will not be automatic for the Cardinal this year. The coaches projected Stanford to finish in 4th place in the Pac-10, behind the two-time defending national champion USC Trojans, the resurgent UCLA Bruins, and the talented and deep Washington Huskies. Graduation took a toll on the Cardinal roster and this low ranking within the nation's premier conference is a direct result of Stanford losing an experienced setter and three middle blockers who accounted for over 60% of the Cardinal's total blocks last season. While an unprecedented 10th Pac-10 Championship and a 15th Final Four berth would appear doubtful, all is not lost for the Stanford faithful. The Cardinal return arguably the top outside hitting duo in the country in senior Ogonna Nnamani and sophomore Kristin Richards, in addition to welcoming PrepVolleyball.com's 2004 Player of the Year in setter Bryn Kehoe.

Fourth-year coach John Dunning is aware of the gaps that his graduating quintent of Jamie Brownell, Sara Dukes, Jenn Harvey, Sara McGee, and Anna Robinson have left this year, but he believes his current group of players are already on the right path to prove that this will not be a down year for Stanford.

"The effect of [last year's seniors] leaving is going to be significant, no question about it… the seniors affected us a lot, mostly experience-wise," acknowledges Dunning. "When we looked around this spring, with Ogonna gone to the National Team, we had 10 players returning and five of them were freshmen. Our players quickly realized that they will have to mature quickly. They have to figure out what they have to do in order to win a national championship."

With four returning starters, experience will be a key strength for Stanford according to Dunning. Although this year's middle blockers are unproven due to Dukes, Harvey and McGee claiming the majority of court time last year, Stanford is experienced enough at the other positions to make up for the void left by the graduating trio. Along with Nnamani and Richards, other players who garnered significant minutes last year include seniors Jen Hucke and Leahi Hall and juniors Katie Goldhahn and Courtney Schultz. Leadership will also play a pivotal role in the success of the Cardinal. With five departing players, this season's upperclassmen will have to step up and show the youngsters what it really means to wear the Stanford emblem.

"Graduating five seniors changes the whole team dynamic," admits Goldhahn. "I think that it's really clear to Courtney [Schultz] and I, as well as the senior class, that we have to take more of a leadership role, especially since we will have nine underclassmen this year. We need to show them what the Stanford program is all about."

And the Stanford program has been all about winning championships and reaching Final Fours for the last two decades. When Stanford's run in last year's NCAA Tournament was disappointingly cut short by Washington in the Sweet Sixteen, it marked only the sixth time in the last 20 years that the Cardinal did not advance to at least the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. This season, motivation is a very powerful tool that the team will use to maintain Stanford's status among the elite of collegiate volleyball.

"We are very motivated for this year to be better than last year," Dunning notes. "I'm very impressed with how everyone has prepared this summer in order to put us in a position to get started." Adds Schultz, "Last season's ending wasn't good enough for us and we don't want [an early loss] to happen again."

One of the main reasons Schultz and her teammates can hope for a better NCAA outing is the presence of Nnamani. As the youngest member of the 2004 Olympic Volleyball squad, and as the second collegian to ever be named to an Olympic Volleyball team (ex-Cardinal and current Olympic teammate Logan Tom being the first), the outside hitter brings a rare breed of athleticism, work ethic and positive attitude that will only raise a team's level of play. However, the only drawback to adding Nnamani into the fold after preseason training has been completed is the adjustments to collegiate volleyball that the Olympian will have to make. However, Dunning is not worried about any damaging effects that might take place.

"Whenever you talk to Ogonna, the first thing she wants everybody to understand is that she wants to play internationally… and she is doing it for her college team so that she can be a better player," reveals Dunning. "Our whole team is convinced that when we add Ogonna back into our team chemistry, back into our talent level, that we are going to be a better team by far… I think physically she'll be fine."

Goldhahn has nothing but respect for her elder teammate. After playing alongside with Nnamani for two seasons and being teammates with Tom for one season, the impact of training with such high caliber athletes is easy for Goldhahn to see. "We've learned how to be true competitors because that's one trait that both Logan and Ogonna have," comments the junior setter. Schultz also remarks that "both Ogonna and Logan are amazing athletes on top of their work ethic and attitude. They know the game on a much different level because of all their experience and we can learn so much from that." From the team's perspective, allowing Nnamani to put on the Cardinal and White after her Olympic stint will only enhance Stanford's chances of going far into the NCAA Tournament come December.

With an internationally seasoned player leading the charge, Stanford has the ability to improve upon its Sweet Sixteen finish last year, though it will take a total team effort. Blocking and back-row play will be huge question marks heading into the season. However, if the young middle blockers have a solid year and the back-row can beef up its defense and passing, the Cardinal could make a successful run all the way to Long Beach, Calif., the site of this year's Final Four.

Outside Hitter

With the graduation of its starting middle blockers, the majority of the offense will run through Stanford's dynamic duo of Ogonna Nnamani and Kristin Richards.

As a returning AVCA First Team All-American, the 6'1" Nnamani is an explosive and athletic terminator who can pound the ball with the best in the world. Last year, the senior hammered down 627 kills, breaking Stanford's single season record for kills. Her signature shot is a hard bullet cross-court, often too difficult for the opposing team to defend against, no matter how many blockers Nnamani faces. While mainly known as an aggressive attacker, the Olympian is also an underrated blocker, garnering 72 blocks last season, third best on the team. If there was a weakness in Nnamani's game, many would agree it is her back-row skills. However, after training for the past eight months with the Olympic team, expect a much improved Nnamani when it comes to her passing and digging. As the frontrunner for Player of the Year Honors, Nnamani knows what it takes to win a national championship and Stanford will need every one of her kills to achieve that goal.

The other outside hitter position will be occupied by talented sophomore Kristin Richards. Known for her superb all-around game, the Utah native was named Volleyball Magazine's Freshman of the Year after averaging 3.38 kills and 3.03 digs a game. For an encore, expect Richards to contend for All-American honors this upcoming fall, as she will share much of the offensive load with Nnamani. The 5'11" hitter has an uncanny ability to find the seam of the block and place the ball to an open area of the court. In addition, her lightning quick arm swing allows her to hit with power not many can match. Great anticipation and technique make Richards one of the best defenders on the Stanford squad and expect her to lead the team again this year in digs. As a second year starter, expectations will be high for Richards, but she has the talent and mentality to handle such pressures.

Adding depth on the left-side will be two-sport star Candice Wiggins. A superb athlete who is quite raw in volleyball, Wiggins has major hops and the potential to be a great attacker. However, she will only be playing with the volleyball team until October, in which she will then accompany the basketball squad with their pre-season practices. Next year, Wiggins will join Dunning & Co. full-time, but will use this year mainly to become accustomed to the Stanford system and the faster pace of collegiate volleyball.

Opposite

Courtney Schultz enters her junior season as an experienced player who has yet to see major time in the front-row. Mainly occupying the libero position in past seasons, the 6'1" utility player will be looking for her chance to finally shine in a hitting position. The right-side hitter is a jack-of-all-trades type of position, as the player must have the ability to hit, block, pass, and set well. A good passer who has improved on her defensive skills with each passing year, Schultz will be able to draw upon her experiences in the back-row to secure her position on the right-side. Passing and digging will be very crucial to Stanford's success this year and Schultz will play an integral part in the Cardinal's serve-receive scheme. Though Schultz is understandably rusty with her hitting and blocking skills after a two year lay-off, she possesses a great arm swing and good mechanics to be a force up at the net in due time.

Challenging Schultz at opposite will be senior Jen Hucke. As last year's starting right-side hitter, Hucke has the experience necessary to compete for playing time. However, her passing abilities might be her downfall, as she isn't the strongest passer on the team. However, she displayed good defensive skills throughout the season, coming up with 2.35 digs a game. The 6'1" hitter also boasts a strong offensive game, as she is one of the hardest hitters on the team. Hucke is a versatile athlete who can also relieve either Nnamani or Richards on the left-side. Another Cardinal who might see time on the right-side is Njideka Nnamani. Though she is only 5'8", the younger sister of Ogonna Nnamani is a jumping bean who manages to put the ball down among the tall trees she faces in the front-row. Her athletic abilities will also be called upon in the back-row, as she uses her quickness to get a hand in on many plays.

Middle Blocker

Graduating starting middles Jenn Harvey, Sara Dukes, and Sara McGee has left Stanford with an inexperienced core of athletes to man the middle this season. Dunning will look to his youngsters to step in and fill the gaps that these three players have left behind. Short on game experience, but not in talent, sophomores Lizzie Suiter and Michelle Mellard have the potential to play a big role in 2004, as they will be counted on to anchor Stanford's front-row defense. The duo will be looking to grow up quickly on the court during the preseason before facing brutal competition on a nightly basis in the Pac-10. The main responsibilities of the 6'3" Mellard and 6'2" Suiter will blocking, as Dunning does not expect either to be much of a factor on offense. Mellard is a player who is known for her raw athletic abilities. She will need a bit more seasoning in order to become an effective force in the middle, though she has the goods to eventually be a very good player for Stanford. Like Mellard, Suiter is not expected to become an immediate threat up at the net, but her anticipation and blocking technique will make her an important cog in Stanford's quest at postseason success.

Looking to grab a spot in the starting line-up is freshman Franci Girard. The 6'2" middle began her volleyball career in the seventh grade and has excelled ever since. Though her skills are still unrefined, her talent is undeniable, as she was a member of the U.S. Youth National Team in 2002 and 2003. Under the tutelage of Dunning, Girard will be able to harness her athletic gifts and become a factor in the line-up for many years to come. How soon she adjusts to collegiate ball will be a key question in her development this year. Another player who will add depth to the middle will be sophomore Jennifer Wilson. The walk-on athlete has great timing up at the net, though her 5'11" frame will be her downfall, especially when going up against much taller competition in the Pac-10.

Setter

After two years of sharing the setting duties with Anna Robinson, junior Katie Goldhahn will get a chance to run the show solo. The 5'11" setter played in the NCAA championship game her freshman year and would love nothing more than to lead her team back to the final match of the season in 2004. Her experience as a part-time starter over the past two years will be her biggest asset, as her familiarity with Dunning's playbook will allow her to execute Stanford's offensive schemes perfectly. Goldhahn's soft hands also mean that she will be setting up her teammates for timely kills on a regular basis. Aside from running the offense, Goldhahn is an accomplished defender, digging 2.37 balls a game last season, tops among all setters in the Pac-10.

Despite the wealth of experience that Goldhahn has accumulated over the last two years, she will be challenged by one of the best incoming players in America. Bryn Kehoe is an energetic and feisty setter who guided St. Ursula Academy to a spectacular 29-0 season, a Division I Ohio State Championship, and the top ranking in PrepVolleyball.com's national high school poll her senior year. The athletic playmaker is known for running an up-temp offense, as Kehoe is able to read the opposing defense and isolate her hitters for an automatic kill. While her volleyball skills and knowledge of the game are highly regarded, it is really Kehoe's will to win that makes her a special player. The 5'11" athlete's determination and competitiveness allows her to take over a game and push her team to victory. Though it is unlikely that Dunning will elect to start Kehoe over Goldhahn, Kehoe will see some significant court action by the time the year is over.

Libero/Defensive Specialist

With Schultz lending her services to the front-row this season, the libero position is up for grabs. The leading candidate to replace Schultz will be senior Leahi Hall. A player who contributed solid minutes last year, Hall will be looking to increase her role with the team when the season begins on September 3rd. Better known for her defensive skills than her passing, Hall used her quick anticipation and instincts to come up with 2.08 digs a game last year. Another contender for the libero position could be Kehoe. Not only is she a high-caliber setter, but she is also an internationally tested libero, having started for the United States at the 2003 Junior World Championships. The previous season, Stanford's passing and digging were major weaknesses and if poor execution in the back continues to plague the Cardinal, Dunning may opt for Kehoe to stabilize the volatile back-row. Another contender for the libero position will be Kirsten Hornbeak. The freshman out of San Diego, Calif. took first at the 2003 Junior Olympic Beach Volleyball Nationals and Dunning is hoping that Hornbeak can translate her beach success to the indoor courts of Burnham Pavilion.

Important Games in 2004

While the Cardinal appears to have a somewhat soft preseason schedule in 2004, they do play national powerhouse Penn State on September 10th in Palo Alto at the Stanford Invitational. Leading the charge for the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions will be technically gifted setter Sam Tortorello and 6'5" middle Cassy Salyer. Despite Penn State being Stanford's only ranked opponent in the entire pre-season schedule, the brutal Pac-10 Conference more than makes up for it, as they will face four Top-10 teams by the time the regular season ends in November. The match-up between the USC Trojans, occurring October 8th (away) and November 5th (home), is always worth the price of admission, as outside hitter Keao Burdine, and twin towers Emily Adams and Bibiana Candelas will be huge obstacles for the Cardinal to overcome. Another notable contest will be against the Washington Huskies, the team that knocked Stanford out in the Sweet Sixteen last year. On October 23rd (away) and November 18th (home), Stanford will be looking to gain some revenge against a talented squad lead by the hard-hitting Sanja Tomasevic and sophomore setter Courtney Thompson. In addition, the age-old rivalry with Cal continues when the Cardinal and the Golden Bears clash this season on October 1st (home) and October 31st. In 2003, Cal was able to beat Stanford in five games to snap a 40-game losing streak spanning over two decades; this year, the Cardinal will look to sweep the season series with the Golden Bears, though outside hitter Mia Jerkov and gifted setter Sam Carter will do everything in their power to guarantee another Cal victory.


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