Volleyball Edged in Five by #7 Penn State

Stanford Volleyball has gotten off to an uneven start to the 2004 season, so it was expected that could get smashed off the court by #7 Penn State Friday night. Instead, the host Cardinal hung tough and lost in a tight five-game match. Nobody likes a loss, but there were many positive notes to take away from this competitive and exciting contest.

Coming into the Stanford Invitational, the 12th-ranked Stanford Cardinal were looking to redeem themselves after a sub-par performance last weekend at the SBC/Sands Regency Invitational in Reno, Nevada, which included a shocking five-game loss to unranked Saint Mary's College.  With a team that starts two freshmen and a sophomore who received virtually no playing time last season, early struggles were expected to be the norm at the beginning of the year for coach John Dunning's squad.  However, Stanford showed Thursday night that the ship was heading in the right direction with a decisive 3-0 victory over Eastern Washington.  With Olympian Ogonna Nnamani slamming down 15 kills at a .483 clip, senior Jen Hucke chipping in with 11 kills and Bryn Kehoe dishing out 41 assists, Stanford had reasons to feel confident heading into Friday night's showdown with the 7th-ranked Penn State Nittany Lion.

The unbeaten 4-0 Penn State squad, coached by the legendary Russ Rose, came to Palo Alto with plenty of ammunition and firepower to justify its lofty early season ranking.  Senior outside hitters Syndie Nadaeu and Ashley Pederson compliment each other well on the court, as Nadaeu is a finesse player with a strong all-around game while Pederson is a power hitter in the purest sense.  Returning All-American setter Sam Tortorello is the best technical setter in the game, while sophomore Cassy Salyer is one of the nation's top middle blockers.  Kate Price has shown flashes of brilliance during first year at Penn State and will someday become a star in Happy Valley.  With so many great players at Rose's disposal, the clash between Stanford and Penn State would surely be a game for the ages.

The two teams did not disappoint, as Stanford and Penn State went the distance and dueled for 5 games, as hard hitting and spectacular digging were witnessed by a sold-out crowd at Burnham Pavilion.  Unfortunately for Stanford, Penn State was able to squeak by the hosts in a nail-biter, giving the Cardinal their second loss of the season by a score of 29-31, 30-23, 25-30, 30-26, 12-15. Nnamani paced the Cardinal with her game-high 29 kills to compliment her 10 digs in the back-row.  Kehoe continues to impress in just her fifth game in a Cardinal uniform, notching a career high 70 assists and digging 23 Penn State attacks.

Game One

Starters: Ogonna Nnamani, outside hitter; Lizzie Suiter, middle blocker; Jen Hucke, opposite; Kristin Richards, outside hitter; Franci Girard, middle blocker; Bryn Kehoe, setter; Leahi Hall, libero

At the start of the match, Stanford and Penn State traded blows, matching each other point for point.  Whether it was Ogonna Nnamani pounding from the outside or Bryn Kehoe getting the two young middle blockers, Franci Girard and Liz Suiter, involved early in the offense, the Cardinal kept pace with the Nittany Lions.  Tied 7-7, Stanford went on a 10-3 run, as Nnamani produced jaw-dropping kills and fellow senior Jen Hucke saw many of her swings hit the floor.  Kehoe was also instrumental in this Cardinal run, as her tough jump floater caused all types of problems for the Penn State serve reception.  Trading points at this juncture, Penn State seemed out of the game with Stanford holding a seemingly insurmountable lead at 29-23. However, the Nittany Lions displayed heart and toughness as they battled back and chipped away at the Cardinal lead, one point at a time.  Freshman outside hitter Kate Price was the main instrument of offense for setter Sam Tortorello, as Price used her 6-3 body and long arms to hit over the block for numerous kills.  Highlighting the Penn State comeback was Price, who had three important kills in their 8-0 run to secure Game One, 31-29.  In the end, what really did Stanford in was suspect passing and the inability to put away the ball at set points.

Game Two

Starters: Ogonna Nnamani, outside hitter; Lizzie Suiter, middle blocker; Jen Hucke, opposite; Kristin Richards, outside hitter; Franci Girard, middle blocker; Bryn Kehoe, setter; Leahi Hall, libero

The Cardinal could have folded after such a mental meltdown in Game One, but demonstrated their heart by competing hard in Game Two.  Stanford jumped out to an early lead at 10-7.  Kehoe was once again distributing the ball well, as the outsides and middles contributed to this 3-point cushion.  However, Penn State would once again find themselves whittling away at the Cardinal lead, eventually tying the game at 13-13.  The Cardinal block, so effective in Game One, was non-existent, as the hitters continually beat the Cardinal blockers.  The two teams traded points back and forth until Suiter and Hucke combined to stuff outside hitter Ashley Pederson for Stanford's first block in Game Two, giving the Cardinal a 20-19 lead it would not relinquish.  Stanford would then go on an 8-0 spurt with Nnamani serving up tough, deep floaters that made it difficult for Penn State to run their offense, as Pederson committed four straight hitting errors during this decisive Stanford run.  Finding themselves at game point at 29-23, Stanford would not let game winning opportunity slip away, as great defense by Kristin Richards eventually lead to a stuff block by the two freshmen starters, Kehoe and Girard, allowing Stanford to even things up at a game a piece.

Game Three

Starters: Ogonna Nnamani, outside hitter; Lizzie Suiter, middle blocker; Jen Hucke, opposite; Kristin Richards, outside hitter; Franci Girard, middle blocker; Bryn Kehoe, setter; Leahi Hall, libero

After taking Game Two on such a high point, Stanford did not let up their level of play drop, as they raced out to a quick 6-2 lead.  Once again, it was the outsides doing most of the damage for Stanford, as Nnamani, Richards, and Hucke all used and abused the Penn State block.  In addition, Richards and Girard each solo blocked Penn State's formidable Cassy Salyer, having their way with the 6'5" middle attacker.  Unfortunately, the Cardinal advantage quickly evaporated, as Penn State's block quickly heated up and affected the Cardinal outsides.  Hitting errors made by Richards and Hucke enabled the Nittany Lions to go on a 6-0 run to take the lead at 8-6.  At this juncture, Kehoe decided to go away from the outsides and set Girard.  The young middle blocker did not disappoint, as two powerful kills by the native New Yorker made up for the two-point deficit, tying the game at 8-8.  Over the next 22 points, neither team would be able to gain a sizeable advantage.  At 19-19, Richards went behind the baseline and took charge.  Behind Richards' floating serves, Stanford would go on a 5-0 run to break the game open and leave Stanford in good position with a 23-19 advantage.  During this scoring spree, Nnamani and Girard had back-to-back kills to send the crowd into a frenzy.  Unfortunately for Cardinal fans, Penn State battled back, erasing the Cardinal lead.  The Nittany Lions tightened up their defense and keyed on Nnamani, as she committed an uncharacteristic 5 hitting errors in the waning moments of Game Three.  Penn State would eventually win 30-25 after Nnamani's attack went wide.

Game Four

Starters: Ogonna Nnamani, outside hitter; Lizzie Suiter, middle blocker; Jen Hucke, opposite; Kristin Richards, outside hitter; Franci Girard, middle blocker; Bryn Kehoe, setter; Leahi Hall, libero

Stanford started off Game Four on a good note, as Suiter took a slide set from Kehoe and hammered it home.  However, the Cardinal soon found themselves trailing for most of the game, as Salyer proved to be a force in the middle with two kills and a block to give Penn State an 8-5 advantage.  However, Stanford would soon make a run, as Kehoe and Girard got things started with a key block on Price, who had been Penn State's terminator all night long.  An 11-3 Stanford run would ensue, as Richards and Kehoe would serve the Cardinal to a 16-11 lead.  At 13-11, Stanford showed that they can play remarkable defense, as a diving Kehoe, a rolling Richards, and an energetic Hall all made amazing digs that would set up a Hucke kill that would end a long rally and send Stanford fans on their feet and cheering for more.  Once again, the Nittany Lions would not go quietly, as they mounted a furious rally behind the smart setting of Tortorello, as she distributed the ball evenly among Penn State's outsides and middles.  Although the Nittany Lions managed to tie the game at 22-22, the Cardinal would not back down as Nnamani took the team on her back and shouldered much of the offensive load.  Kehoe continually set the hard-hitting senior and Nnamani did not let her teammates down, finishing with four kills late in Game Four to earn a 30-26 Stanford victory, sending the match into a fifth and deciding game.

Game Five

Starters: Ogonna Nnamani, outside hitter; Lizzie Suiter, middle blocker; Jen Hucke, opposite; Kristin Richards, outside hitter; Franci Girard, middle blocker; Bryn Kehoe, setter; Leahi Hall, libero

Penn State took an early 1-0 lead thanks to Price, who got a kill off of a wonderful set from Tortorello.  However, it would then be all Stanford.  Leahi Hall took the stage behind the service line and her deep floaters were vital in building an early 5-1 Stanford lead.  Despite the early deficit, Penn State would once again chip away at the Cardinal advantage, as Tortorello took charge of the match with two kills, the second one bringing the Nittany Lions to within one, at 7-8.  Stanford would then push the lead back out to 10-7, thanks to a kill by Richards that rocketed into the stands and a Courtney Schultz service ace.  At this juncture, Penn State took a timeout and when they came back on to the court, they absolutely dominated the Cardinal.  Pederson and Price would combine for 5 kills during the decisive 8-2 run that would ultimately give the Nittany Lions the match, taking the fifth game 15-12.

Game Notes

Despite the loss, the Cardinal played extremely well, as they out-hit, out-dug, and out-blocked the Nittany Lions.  However, what really become the Cardinal's downfall was their failure to score points at crucial moments that allowed the Nittany Lions to get back into the game.  After working hard for a big lead, Stanford just was not able to sustain their level of play throughout the match and the inability to sideout has been a key issue that the Cardinal have faced all season long.

"A real key for us is we can't let our opponents score streaks of points.  We've done that since the start and we're not sure what exactly is causing it and that's something we have to work on," revealed a disappointed, but upbeat Dunning.  "We had 20 blocks, 105 digs, those are pretty big numbers for any match.  So that means we are doing something really well and I'm happy with that."

One of the biggest improvements so far during this young season has been the back-row play of the Cardinal.  Although at times the defense seemed disorganized, for the most part, the Cardinal were committed and focused on playing disciplined defense.  Bryn Kehoe was simply amazing.  Her agility and court awareness allowed her to dig even the hardest of shots and her energy seemed to transfer over to the team.  Kristin Richards and Leahi Hall also were inspiring on defense, throwing their bodies all over the court in order to keep the play alive.  In the fifth game, Hall made a jaw-dropping one-fisted dig that resulted in a Cardinal point and a bevy of screams and cheers from the Stanford crowd. 

While the defense is much improved, the passing will need to get better in order for Stanford to challenge for a Final Four berth.  The Cardinal used a three-man passing system, with Jen Hucke and Richards passing all around the court, with Courtney Schultz and Hall passing whenever they were in the back-row.  The passing became a major problem whenever Penn State staged a rally to either tie or surpass the Cardinal, as the passing got tight and it became difficult for Kehoe to run the offense in an efficient manner.  Too many times in critical moments, the serve receive became erratic, and pin-point passing was no where to be found.  There was no better example of this than when Stanford gave up eight straight points to lose the first game in heartbreaking fashion.

Despite the disaster that occurred at the end of Game One, the Cardinal showed a lot of heart by coming out with a lot of fire in the second game.  It would have been easy for Stanford to dwell on the fact that they squandered six game points, but instead, the team was focused on the present, not the past. 

"I think what I told them [after Game One] was that was a really good level of play," says Dunning.  "We did what we've been doing, which was giving up a streak of points.  We just didn't give it up in the middle, but in the end, which hurts more."  Dunning was able to keep things positive and shaped the way this young team came out firing in Game Two.

Coming into the season, back-row play and blocking were two areas in which Stanford critics felt would hurt the Cardinal in the end.  However, freshman Franci Girard and sophomore Liz Suiter demonstrated that they are more than ready to man the middle of the court, as they each finished with 8 and 9 blocks, respectively.  While the two are mainly being counted of for their defense, Girard is slowly turning into an offensive force for Stanford.  The obvious game plan for Penn State was to camp out on the outsides, double and triple teaming Nnamani and Richards, but Girard showed moments of offensive brilliance with her spikes.  With the ability to hit either the quick set or on the slide, Girard just needs more seasoning before she can become a reliable option after Nnamani and Richards.  As Nnamani notes, "[The opponents] have to start respecting our middles.  Our middles did a good job tonight.  Franci is doing a lot better and she played excellent.  Lizzie is working hard and doing a great job… Pretty soon they can't focus on anybody and hopefully they'll have to focus on every single player we have out there.  That's our goal."

As a freshman, Kehoe has done a magnificent job at arguably one of the toughest positions in volleyball.  The Ohio native has stepped in and made herself comfortable with Dunning's offensive schemes, as she uses her athletic abilities and court smarts to turn a difficult pass into a hittable ball for her teammates.  Although she had some difficulties connecting with her teammates, especially the middles, Kehoe will only get better with experience.  Once she and Girard are consistently on the same page, the offense for Stanford will be much more varied and dangerous for their opponents.  Not only were her setting and defensive abilities excellent on Friday night, her serving is becoming a powerful tool.  Her jump floater, like Richards', is very deceptive in that there isn't a lot of power behind the serve, though it is very difficult to pass, resulting in many poor passes for the opponents.  Kehoe will be a major player for Stanford in the future and she is already showcasing her immense talent as a youngster.

While the inexperienced players were key in stretching Penn State to five games, it was the veteran outside hitters who steadied the team throughout the night.  Nnamani was the undisputed leader on offense, flying high over the block to pound the ball.  No matter where the senior was in the rotation, she was a constant threat to end the point and as she continues to get back into the Stanford system, she will only get better.  Richards and Hucke each contributed 20 kills, though Richards only hit .194 for the match.  The inconsistency of the sophomore was evident throughout the match, as her powerful attempts either resulted in a kill or an error.  Richards has a tendency to hit into the block, which resulted in many of her hitting miscues.   Though the hard-hitting outside has plenty of experience, she is still an underclassman learning more about the game as each year progresses.  While her offense was erratic, her digging and passing were stellar as usual.  Like Kehoe, Richards is an intense defender who came up with many spectacular digs throughout the night, doing what ever it took to keep the ball alive.  Like her fellow teammates, Hucke proved to be a reliable offensive outlet, as she has the ability to hit from either side of the antenna.  While her passing is still suspect at times, Hucke has made great strides in improving her back-row skills. 

With some many young players on the court, it is simply amazing that Stanford was able to go the distance with Penn State.  As the team matures over time and the young players gain more match experience, Stanford could make a huge dent at the top of the national scene by the time December rolls around.

"[Kehoe, Girard, and Suiter] are all playing pretty big roles.  When you are new, you are going to get better," comments an optimistic Dunning.  "Seeing this level of volleyball right now, it was a great match.  I think we'll be able to play at a pretty high level by the end of the year."

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