Hitting on All Cylinders

In case you haven't noticed, Stanford Volleyball is in something of a groove right now. Their latest victim was #25 Santa Clara, who the Card crushed in a decisive three-game win Tuesday night. Roland Hu has a detailed review of that match and analysis of where this team is at this point in the season. Read on for all the notes and quotes...

Three weeks ago, the preseason 6th-ranked Stanford Cardinal was standing in a precarious position. Their hopes for a Top-2 seed in the NCAA Tournament were rapidly fading with back-to-back losses to No. 1 Washington and No. 14 Cal and the outlook for a trip to Long Beach (Calif.), the site of this year's Final Four, did not look promising. The likelihood of a four-game losing streak was a genuine possibility, as the mighty one-two punch of UCLA and USC were set to invade Burnham Pavilion in early November.

And then a peculiar thing happened. Stanford became a contender again for the national title. With their backs to the wall, the Cardinal responded to the Southern California Challenge and swept the L.A. schools, highlighted with a surprising 3-0 drubbing of the No. 6 Trojans. After easily taking care of the Oregon schools the following weekend, Stanford was eagerly looking forward to a rematch in Palo Alto on November 18 with the previously unbeaten Washington Huskies.

Riding the momentum they gained from their victory over USC, the Cardinal withstood a second-game meltdown and a balanced Washington offense to pull off the improbable win. Initially, the match was reminiscent to the one played in Seattle just two weeks prior, as Washington appeared to be on its way to an easy three-game sweep. The Cardinal had other plans, however, and mid-way through the night, every player stepped up her game and displayed an incredible amount of heart and desire in turning back the Huskies' relentless attack. Despite facing 11 match points, Stanford scored perhaps the most thrilling win in program history, producing an incredible 28-30, 11-30, 30-27, 34-32, and 20-18 victory.

Thanks in part to wins over three Top-20 opponents, Stanford has quickly moved up the rankings in the past three weeks, jumping from No. 14 to its current No. 7. Re-establishing itself as a dangerous threat to reach the Final Four in December, the Cardinal were looking to add 25th-ranked Santa Clara University to its list of victims in Tuesday night's showdown between the two Bay Area volleyball powers. Leading the Cardinal into battle against the Broncos, senior Ogonna Nnamani has played a pivotal role in Stanford's recent success. Averaging 5.89 kills a game, the 2004 Olympian notched a career-high 37 kills in the upset win over Washington and has shown no signs of slowing down her dominating attacks. With 2,234 kills to her credit, the 6'1" outside hitter needs just 22 more kills to surpass Kristee Porter, the Pac-10 Career Kill Record Holder. Freshman Bryn Kehoe has also been a big factor for the Cardinal, as her setting and digging abilities have often in instrumental in the victories. Sharing the setting duties with junior Katie Goldhahn for most of the season in a modified 6-2, Kehoe was recently given the green light to run the show solo and she has not disappointed, averaging over 14 assists a game the past few weeks. Anchoring the Stanford defense has been middle blocker Liz Suiter, as the 6'2" sophomore leads the team in blocks with 1.52 a game.

Santa Clara University finished their conference schedule with a split on the road, defeating perennial power Pepperdine University 3-2, but losing to a gritty Loyola Marymount squad in four games. One of the biggest reasons for their loss to LMU was because their leading blocker, quick hitter Annalisa Muratore, had surgery on her left knee on November 11 and is out for the season. Along with her WCC-leading 1.77 blocks a game, Muratore's 3.41 kills a game were missed as well. Without the presence of the 6'2" middle blocker at the net, the Broncos turned to Muratore's older sister, Toni, and outside hitter Kim McGiven for offense, as the two are averaging 3.43 and 3.10 kills a game, respectively. Santa Clara also recently switched from a 6-2 setting formation to the more common 5-1, as Head Coach Jon Wallace gave senior Kristin Luxton the starting nod over freshman Crystal Mattich. Defensively, local products Caroline Walters (Los Gatos High School) and Jaq Heler (Gunn High School) have provided the back-row with big numbers, as they are digging 4.88 and 3.16 balls a game. Even without their young star on the court, the Broncos had enough firepower on paper to give the Cardinal a run for the money.

Alas, it was not to be the case. Instead of pushing Stanford and hoping for a victory for the first time in school history, the Broncos went down without much of a fight, as poor passing and a paltry 0.027 hitting percentage were reasons for the comfortable 30-14, 30-19, and 30-23 Cardinal victory. As a result of the terrible serve receive, the Broncos offense was predictable and a majority of their sets were sent to the outside, where Cardinal blockers camped out all night long. Ogonna Nnamani did not break the Pac-10 Record Holder in Kills Tuesday night, but she still led all attackers with 15 kills on the night. Aiding the Stanford offense were outside hitters Kristin Richards and Jen Hucke, with 8 kills each.

Game One

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

The match began in great fashion as a one-handed diving dig by Jen Hucke set the tone for the Stanford defense, although a subsequent joust at the net would be won by Santa Clara. Bryn Kehoe got the Cardinal their first point of Game One, with a smartly placed dump off of a great pass by Hucke to make the score 1-2, in favor of the visitors. Poor passing plagued Santa Clara early on and their only swings came from the outsides. In addition, the Stanford block was touching many balls, slowing down the pace of the Broncos attacks. A stuff block set up by Hucke and middle blocker Liz Suiter enabled the Cardinal to bolt to a 10-4 advantage and they continued to pressure the Santa Clara serve receive with difficult and tough serves. Santa Clara setter Kristen Luxton worked hard in Game One, running all over the court in order to salvage many of the poor passes and turn them into a hittable ball. While the Broncos offense was suffering, Kehoe had the team running on all cylinders. Ogonna Nnamani was attacking very well and nothing would stop her from obtaining a kill. At 17-7, the 6'1" outside hitter faced a triple block, but her back-row attack still trickled through the Broncos wall for a kill. She would end up with 6 kills on a .545 clip in the opening game. Towards the end of the first frame, Santa Clara's floor defense began to pick up, enabling them to stay in many of the rallies. Ultimately, it would not be enough, as the Cardinal had built too big of a lead in the beginning stages of Game One and handily took the 30-14 victory after a Santa Clara hitting error.

Game Two

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

Nnamani continued her barrage of kills with a blast off of the block to pick up Stanford's first point of Game Two. On the very next play, Kristin Richards dug a hard bullet that drew admiration from the crowd and the ensuing Hucke back-row laser would bring the house down, as Stanford's transition game proved to be spot on. Santa Clara passed the ball much better in the second game and the score reflected their ability to raise their level of play. Two kills each by outside hitter Cassie Perret and middle blocker Anna Cmylao allowed the Broncos to overtake the Cardinal and post a 9-6 lead. Stanford would respond with a mini-run of their own, tying the game up at 10-all with a blast out of the middle by freshman Franci Girard. The visitors regained the lead on the very next point, but from then on, it was all Stanford. The back-row defenders displayed incredible hustle and heart, causing the Santa Clara attackers to overhit their swing and cause multiple errors. After Richards hammered an overpass ball for another Cardinal point, the Broncos called a timeout at 17-14 to stop the momentum. However, a Hucke kill immediately following the 30-second break would continue Stanford's run. Although Santa Clara had managed to slow down Nnamani's attacks with a combination of a constant double block and great floor defense, her teammates picked up the slack and they rolled their way to the easy 30-19 win.

Game Three

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

Santa Clara tried to mix things up a bit after the break by pulling starting setter Luxton out of the line-up and inserting freshman Crystal Mattich. And Wallace's decision looked to have paid off after Mattich scored the first Broncos point off of a dump. However, officials ruled that it was an illegal back-row attack and the Broncos never recovered. After a standing topspin shot by Richards fell to the floor, untouched by any Santa Clara defenders, Wallace called a timeout with his team trailing at 6-1. The visiting team would manage to close the gap to three points at 3-6 and once again at 7-10, but solid passing on Stanford's side lead to a scoring binge. Girard scored back-to-back points off of a solo block and an overpass kill to increase the Cardinal advantage to 14-8. Richards, who was relatively quiet in the first two games, exploded and ended up with 5 kills in the Game Three, as her lightening-quick arm swing powered many kills that impressed the home fans. Facing a double block on one particular point, the 6'0" Utah native unleashed a bullet that hit the head of one of the blockers and the force of impact carried the ball all the way to the Broncos end line, out of reach of any defenders. One of the most impressive plays of the night came mid-way through the third frame, as Nnamani came out of nowhere to thunder home the kill. The sheer athleticism she displayed on that kill alone drew whistles of amazement from the crowd. Stanford's passing broke down a bit towards the end of the match, but strong a serving effort by everyone allowed the Cardinal to put their Bay Area rivals away. On the final point of the match, Kehoe connected on a backslide with reserve middle blocker Jennifer Wilson to take Game Three and the match, 30-14, 30-19, and 30-23.

Game Notes

Going into Tuesday night's match, Head Coach John Dunning wanted to keep the game plan basic. He told his team to focus on serving and passing and everything else will take care of itself. And as Santa Clara found out, keeping things simple was the recipe for a three-game sweep. Dunning knew that the Broncos had a lot of weapons at their disposal and if their passing was off, it would severely limit the number of offensive options Santa Clara could choose from. The Cardinal had a variety of players who disrupted their South Bay foe's serve receive, and Jen Hucke was particularly devastating behind the baseline, finishing with 3 aces on the night.

"[Santa Clara] can be very offensive but I think we served great tonight," reveals Dunning. "Our players really took risks and served as tough as they could and took them out of their offense almost the whole night."

While Kristen Luxton and Crystal Matich were forced to set the antennas more times than they would have liked, Bryn Kehoe was faced with more attacking options, as Stanford's back-row did a good job at delivering the ball to the 5'11" setter for most of the night. With better passes on Stanford's side, opponents will less be able to focus solely on Ogonna Nnamani and Kristin Richards, creating a more diverse Cardinal attack that will be more difficult to defend. Passing has been Stanford's Achilles heel for the past two seasons, but the team has been making progress throughout the year, making the necessary adjustments in order to consistently pass well under pressure.

"We really practice passing a lot in practice and that's one of our focus points," explains Hucke. "We need to get the middles involved and the only way you do that is off of a good pass."

Hucke also admits that she and Richards will need to concentrate more on passing when they are in the front-row, as their mentality of hit-first, pass-second can sometimes be a detriment to the team.

"If Kristin and I are both hitting, sometimes we won't focus on the passing because we're getting ready to hit," comments the senior. "So we just have to remember to pass first and then hit. John constantly reminds us that passing is the key."

Another fundamental aspect of volleyball that Stanford has shown steady improvement over the season has been blocking. After graduating three experienced middle blockers, the front-row defense was a huge question mark for the Cardinal at the beginning of the year, as sophomore Liz Suiter only played in a mere 3 games in 2003 and the other middle, Franci Girard, was a freshman. However, the duo have silenced doubters with their solid play up at the net, as they are a huge reason why Stanford is ranked the 4th-best blocking team in the country.

"It was really scary at the beginning of the season [with two inexperienced middles]! It was really discouraging because we didn't know what was going to happen," confessed Hucke. "As the season has gone on, Lizzie is the #2 blocker in the Pac-10. She's doing awesome and so is Franci. They are both coming along and they are really helping us out in the middle."

Dunning stresses that the constant improvement of his middles will be a key factor in Stanford's success heading into the NCAA Tournament. While having an Olympian on his roster is an incredible blessing, the integration of Suiter and Girard could be the difference between another Sweet Sixteen exit and a berth to the Final Four.

"The more we go to our middles, who are young, the better we are going to get… If our middles keep coming along and doing better and better as they have been, we can be pretty good," opines Dunning. "I mean, Ogonna is someone no one else has. She has played great all year and we have leaned on her a lot and she wants us to keep leaning on her. But the more help we give her… the better we'll get."

With a 3-0 victory over a Top-25 squad, Stanford is now riding on a seven-game winning streak and they will look to carry that momentum when they visit the Arizona schools this weekend and into the NCAA Tournament in December. It is not often that a team will sweep the two-time defending National Champions and overcome 11 match points held by the No. 1 squad in the nation, but somehow, Stanford accomplished that feat in just a two week span. Many critics did not give the Cardinal a chance of going toe-to-toe with either the Trojans or the Huskies, let alone defeat both. With their victories, Dunning believes that his team has grasped a higher level of maturity not seen before and it couldn't have come at a better time.

"We went undefeated at home in the Pac-10 this year and that's the sign of a good team that needed to mature," states the 4th-year Stanford coach. "When you are on the road, you have to be mature and I think we're getting there."

In addition, the magical win over Washington allowed the Cardinal to dig in deep and realize the depths of their mental toughness, a trait in his squad Dunning had desperately tried to unlock since Day One.

"I knew they had it in them, but I didn't know how to bring it out of them earlier in the season. We are just getting tougher right now, which you have to be at this time of year," comments Dunning.

With the NCAA Tournament right around the corner and Long Beach looming large, Stanford is peaking at the right time. They have the confidence in themselves and the wins to prove it. As Hucke aptly puts it, "No one can really scare us right now."

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