Volleyball Outlasts Cal in Classic

When you think of rivalries for Stanford Women's Volleyball, the Bears across they Bay are far from the first to come to mind. But history was thrown out the window Friday night when the two Pac-10 foes clashed in a classic in sold out Burnham Pavilion. #11 Stanford outlasted #12 Cal in this remarkably tight five-game match filled with drama and a rollercoaster of events. Read on for the heroes, as well as the highs and lows, from this fantastic affair.

Over the years, the rivalry on the volleyball court between the Stanford Cardinal and the California Golden Bears has been anything but competitive. While the athletic history between the two Bay Area schools invoke images of The Play of 1982, intense clashes on the basketball court, and spirited battles between Oski and the Stanford Tree, volleyball matches between the long-time rivals have always swung mightily in Stanford's favor, as the Cardinal possess a 52-4 edge over their East Bay foes. However, the 2003 season proved to a be a turning point in Cal volleyball history, as the Golden Bears won a five game thriller over the Cardinal, a feat that had not been accomplished in over 20 years. With a roster chock full of talented and experienced players, Cal will continue to inject life into a once limp rivalry.

After a spectacular season in 2003, where the Golden Bears finished the year with a school best Sweet Sixteen appearance, Cal was expected to be even better this year. Lead by two-time All-American Mia Jerkov, the Bears had all the components in place to make a legitimate run at the Final Four come December. However, before the season began, Cal learned that Jerkov would not be returning to Berkeley for her senior year, as the Croatian native decided to instead concentrate on her national team commitments. Despite the loss of the talented 6'4" outside hitter, sixth-year Head Coach Rich Feller still has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Sophomore Samantha Carter proved to be one of the best up-and- coming setters in the conference and she continues her impressive play this year, averaging 13.56 assists, .36 aces, and 2.00 digs a game. On the receiving end of Carter's many sweet sets are seniors Gabrielle Abernathy and Camille Leffall. Outside hitter Abernathy can absolutely destroy the ball when on the attack, though her hitting percentage of .172 could see an improvement as the season progresses. Middle blocker Leffall uses her quickness and athleticism to be a force at the net, getting 2.68 kills and 1.12 blocks a game, all while leading the Golden Bears with her .365 hitting percentage. Though replacing Jerkov is a difficult and almost impossible task, freshman Angie Pressey has done an remarkable job at taking over the other outside hitter position. Though she is only hitting .194, the freshman impressively leads the team in kills, with 3.96 a game. The 5'8" hitter is also third on the team in digs, with 2.07 a game.

For fourth-year Head Coach John Dunning, the trio of Ogonna Nnamani, Kristin Richards, and Jen Hucke have lead the Cardinal to a 9-3 record in 2004. With the inexperience of the middles, the offense runs through the outsides, as they account for over 77% of the kills. Against Arizona, Nnamani passed Kristin Folkl to become Stanford's 3rd All-Time Kill Leader, trailing only Logan Tom and Kristin Klein. If Nnamani continues at her torrid pace of 5.33 kills a game, she will easily be Stanford's next Kill Queen. Despite her lack of playing time last year, sophomore Lizzie Suiter has done a great job defending the net, leading the Pac-10 in blocks with 1.76 a game. In fact, over the last three games, Suiter has either tied or broken her career high of 9 blocks. Freshman Bryn Kehoe first stepped into the starting line-up as a result of an injury to Katie Goldhahn. Since the season began, Kehoe has done a superb job leading the Cardinal offense and shows no signs of relinquishing her starting position. Despite the loss to St. Mary's on Tuesday, Kehoe played an impressive game, dishing out 15.00 assists and digging 4.75 balls a game. A setter's duel between Carter and Kehoe is worth the price of admission alone.

Heading into Friday's match, both Stanford and Cal sit atop the Pac-10 standings with Washington, as each school sport identical 2-0 records. Despite coming off of weekend sweeps of the Arizona schools, both teams still have weaknesses to improve upon, as 11th-ranked Stanford and 12th-ranked Cal suffered disappointing losses on Tuesday to the Western Coast Conference. For the second time this season, St. Mary's secured a victory over Stanford, while Santa Clara swept the Golden Bear's on the Bronco's home turf. Friday's showdown not only will determine the conference leader, but also instill some much needed confidence in the winning squad.

In a close and tense match separated by a mere three points, a sold-out Burnham Pavilion witnessed one of the greatest victories Stanford has ever pulled out, as they withstood a resilient Cal squad to earn a hard-fought 30-28, 28-30, 30-27, 28-20, and 15-13 triumph. In a match characterized by great back-row defense by the Golden Bears and stifling net play by the Cardinal, the epic thriller left fans and players emotionally drained as the 2-hour and 45-minute match came to a close on a solo block by Suiter. Nnamani pounded out a game-high 28 kills while freshman middle blocker Franci Girard put down a career-high 13 kills for the home team. For Cal, Pressey finished with 18 kills to lead a balanced attack that saw five players finish with double-digit kills while libero Jillian Davis had a phenomenal defensive performance, tallying 33 digs in the match.

Game One

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

Right off the bat, Stanford made it known that its block was going to be a factor in the match, as freshmen Franci Girard and Bryn Kehoe teamed up to deny fellow newbie Angie Pressey to give the Cardinal the first point of the match. Poor serving and service errors by both teams kept the game score close early in the match, though impressive kills by the outside trio of Ogonna Nnamani, Jen Hucke and Kristin Richards allowed Stanford to build a four point lead at 16-12. With dominating net play by middle Lizzie Suiter and Kehoe setting up balls for her outsides to hammer away, Stanford was able to push ahead to 24-18. Eventually, the Cardinal found themselves in good position to capture the opening game, just two points away from the opening set Starters: Ogonna Nnamani, outside hitter; Kristin Richards, outside hitter; Franci Girard, middle blocker; Lizzie Suiter, middle blocker; Jen Hucke, opposite; Bryn Kehoe, setter; Courtney Schultz, liberoand leading by 5. However, all the momentum that Stanford seemingly possessed evaporated, as a miscommunication between Kehoe and Girard began a timely 5-0 run by Cal. After two consecutive service aces by setter Sam Carter, the score was tied at 28-all. While Stanford was searching for answers to stop the bleeding, Kehoe smartly set Nnamani on the very next point and her eighth kill of the game gave the Cardinal game point. Girard would then thunder home the ball off of a quick set by Kehoe to give the home team a close and intense victory in Game One, 30-28.

Game Two

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

Game Two started off in Cal's favor, as the Golden Bears raced to an 8-5 lead, displaying fantastic back-row defense that allowed Carter to set-up her hitters for easy kills. Defensive specialist Alexis Kollias and libero Jillian Davis were exceptional in absorbing Stanford's hardest hits and delivering the ball perfectly to Carter. Davis was especially effective at stopping Nnamani in Game Two, sprawling her body all over the court to dig the bullets that came from the Stanford senior. The hustling defense that the Bears demonstrated in Game Two would only allow the Cardinal's star outside hitter one kill, well below her game average. Without the overpowering offense of Nnamani, the tandem of Richards and Girard picked up the slack and were able to consistently put the ball away to keep Stanford within striking distance. Off of a Kehoe kill, Stanford eventually tied the game at 20-20. Although Cal would inch up ahead towards the latter half of Game Two, Stanford found a way to knot the score at 24 and then again at 26. However, key kills by outside hitter Gabrielle Abernathy, coupled with costly errors made by Girard, Richards and Kehoe, enabled the Bears to prevail in Game Two, 30-28.

Game Three

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

At the beginning of Game Three, Kehoe displayed a veteran savvy that pushed her squad ahead early on. A service ace and great placement of the ball by the phenom freshman paced Stanford to a 5-2 lead. Cal was able to come within one point at 9-10, as a Nnamani attack sailed wide and Girard was thoroughly rejected in the middle by the Cal duo of Camille Leffall and Carter. That would be as close as Cal would get though in Game Three, as Stanford capitalized on a slew of hitting errors by the Golden Bears that would eventually put the Cardinal ahead, 19-10. Stanford's huge block played a factor in the Cal error-fest, as the Golden Bears were unable to get past the Cardinal wall on four occasions during the their 9-1 streak. Despite the seemingly insurmountable nine-point lead, Cal never stopped playing with heart. Tough serving by outside hitter Amanda Fox and Carter, combined with smart hitting by the Cal, cut the golden Bear's deficit to only two points at 25-27. With The Golden Bears dangerously close to overtaking Game Three, seniors Nnamani and Hucke would not stand for another Cal run and kills by the twosome gave Stanford Game Three by a score of 30-27.

Game Four

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

After losing another close game, Cal was determined not to throw in the towel and subsequently formed an early lead in Game Four, as Carter spread the ball around and let Brown, Powers, and Leffall pound out kills to carve a 2-point cushion at 7-5. Cal would then extend their lead to 12-7 after tough serving by Fox resulted in a series of Cardinal miscues. However, in the spirit of the Cal-Stanford rivalry, Ogonna Nnamani would not let her team go down with a whimper. The outside hitter found the floor on three consecutive points that propelled her team on a 5-1 run, pulling the two teams into a dead heat at 13-all. Points were traded back and forth until a Richards kill broke a 15-15 tie to give Stanford their first lead in Game Four. Over the next few points, Stanford would extend their advantage to as many as three points, but the Golden Bears clawed their way back to knot the score up at 20. The Cardinal would once again push the score back in their favor with outstanding blocking and Cal was forced to call a timeout after trailing 23-26. The brief break in action injected life into the Golden Bears and they displayed their never-say-die attitude by winning seven out of the next nine points to secure Game Four by a 30-28 margin. Four untouchable attacks by Abernathy were instrumental in allowing Cal to push the match to a deciding fifth game.

Game Five

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

Cal struck first in the do-or-die fifth game, as opposite Jenna Brown carefully avoided the block put up by Kehoe and Girard for the kill and a 1-0 lead. Cal would continue to use a diverse offense, as Carter distributed the ball easily to both the outsides and middles to stake a 7-4 advantage. Poor passing also hindered Stanford's ability to put up an effective attack, resulting in diggable balls for the Cal defense. However, behind the strong serving of junior Katie Goldhahn, Stanford was able to pull even with their Bay Area rivals at 7-all. Both teams were then unable to build a substantial lead for the rest of game, matching each other point for point as the next 12 possessions resulted in 6 ties and 6 lead changes. Tied at 13-apiece, Kehoe took a perfect pass from Richards and delivered a perfect set to Nnamani, who smashed the ball to send the pro-Stanford crowd on their feet for match point. On the very next play, Suiter blocked a Cal kill attempt to end the thrilling match with a 15-13 victory in Game Five.

Game Notes

After a disappointing defeat at the hands of the St. Mary Gaels, it was important for Stanford to come out firing on all cylinders against Cal. For most of the match, Ogonna Nnamani was an offensive force to be reckoned with, routinely hitting over the block for a kill. The senior outside hitter finished with 28 kills on a .283 hitting clip; if it weren't for the superb play of Jillian Davis for Cal, Nnamani would have been even more efficient. Fellow outside hitters Kristin Richards and Jen Hucke chipped in 15 kills each, though low hitting percentages also plagued them, as no wing player hit above .300 for the match. Stanford's poor serve reception allowed the Cal blockers to camp out at the antennas without having to worry about the middles burning them. However, Franci Girard was able to make her presence known, as she was the only Cardinal attacker to hit over .300, as she put down a career-high 13 kills while hitting .500 throughout the course of the night. There were a few miscues between Girard and Kehoe, but for the most part, the two connected very well, as Girard pounded quick sets left and right. On one particular play that drew cheers from the crowd, Kehoe took a tight pass and somehow jump set Girard a quick backset, which the 6'2" middle blocker swiftly put away. During the past few weeks, Girard's play at the net has been inconsistent, either showing flashes of brilliance or exhibiting the typical freshman mistakes. However, tonight Girard was a reliable option for Kehoe, and added six blocks to go along with her offensive output. If she continues at this level, Girard will make things a whole lot easier for the outsides.

The defensive effort put forth by Stanford produced mixed results. While the Cardinal dominated the net, ultimately finishing with 18 blocks, the back-row defense had many gaping holes that Cal was able to exploit. Though five Cardinal players finished with at least 10 digs, the Golden Bears out dug them by a wide margin, 92-78. Davis was a thorn in Stanford's offense. Whether it was a tip or a bullet shot, the junior libero was able to get a hand on the attempt to give Cal another opportunity on offense. Many of her 33 digs were placed perfectly for Carter to set, no matter how hard the shot was hit. As mentioned before, Stanford's passing is still a work in progress, as Cal's jumper servers made it difficult for Kehoe to consistently run a varied offense. However, when it mattered the most, Stanford buckled down and made the right defensive plays necessary to guarantee a win.

While the back-row defense will still need some fine-tuning after Friday's match, the blocking has proven to be one of the best in the nation. Lizzie Suiter is a monster in the middle, collecting seven blocks against Cal and was instrumental in forming Stanford's first line of defense. After losing Jenn Harvey, Sara Dukes and Sara McGee to graduation, many doubted whether or not Stanford could dominate in the middle like in years past. The play of Stanford's front-court players suggest that all doubts can be put to rest, as they are ranked second in the nation in blocks, rejecting 3.66 balls a game.

The Cardinal still lack the killer instinct to put away teams when a big lead is formed. Against the Arizona schools last weekend, it was the first time all season long that Stanford built a large lead and never let their opponent back in the match. The potential to dominate teams is very apparent with the Cardinal, especially with a player like Nnamani on the roster. However, a shanked pass here, a mental lapse there, and all of a sudden the big lead Stanford had worked so hard for disappears in an instant. Luckily for Coach Dunning, his team was able to make the right plays when it counted the most to pull out this nail-biting thriller. Next weekend, the Cardinal may not be as fortunate if they suffer a mental lapse, as they visit the L.A. schools and prepare to do battle with the USC Trojans on Friday and the UCLA Bruins on Saturday. If Stanford is able to pass consistently and exhibit defensive intensity in the back-row, a Cardinal sweep is not out of the question.

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