When the 2004 NCAA Tournament Draw was announced on November 28, the 6th-ranked Stanford Cardinal had reason to be optimistic based on their recent performances. After beating five ranked teams in four weeks, including previously undefeated and former No. 1 Washington, head coach John Dunning had his squad firing on all cylinders and a berth to Long Beach (Calif.), the site of this year's Final Four, was not out of the question. Although hosting the first and second rounds would not be a possibility (Burnham did not meet the NCAA seating requirements and Maples was still undergoing renovations), the Cardinal expected to be placed somewhere on the West Coast with a Top-2 seed. However, the NCAA committee had other plans for Stanford, as they were shipped across the country and positioned in perhaps the most difficult sub-regional of the NCAA Tournament in Tallahassee (Fla.) as the 11th overall seed. Joined by two other Top-25 teams in host school Florida A&M (No. 25) and Florida (No. 12), Stanford knew it would be an uphill battle just to make it to the Sweet Sixteen.
After methodically dismantling first-time participant and first round opponent Jacksonville University in three games last Friday, Stanford turned all of its attention to Florida, who had defeated their instate rival FAMU in a surprisingly easy 3-0 victory. Going into the Saturday afternoon match, the Cardinal knew that the Gators would be a tough match-up because of their superior athleticism and overall quickness. Florida dominated Stanford the last two years in preseason matches because the Gators were able to utilize their physical advantages to blunt whatever the Cardinal threw at them.
Facing a hostile and mostly pro-Florida crowd, history looked to repeat itself as Stanford faced its earliest NCAA exit since 2000 after being down two games to one. However, senior Ogonna Nnamani was not ready to hang up her volleyball shoes just yet and the team rallied behind the outside hitter's match-high 30 kills to secure a memorable 25-30, 30-15, 21-30, 30-27, and 15-9 win. The most impressive aspect of the victory was Nnamani's ability to raise her level of play when the game was on the line. In the decisive fifth game, the 2004 Olympian had no hitting errors while hammering home six kills, including the final two points. Over the past month, Nnamani has played like a woman on a mission, notching at least 20 kills in eight of her last 11 matches.
"She's kind of in a zone right now where she's at the end of her career and she wants to go out on top. She's taken us all on her back and she's done a great job," reveals Associate Head Coach Denise Corlett.
As well as Nnamani performed against Florida on Saturday, the win could not have been obtained without the help of her teammates, namely Kristin Richards and Franci Girard. Richards struggled early on with her offense, hitting zero against the physical Gator block in the first game. However, the outside hitter made some key adjustments that allowed her to be successful in the later stages of the evening, collecting 16 kills on the night.
"Florida is a very athletic team so they are very quick and jump higher than most teams [Richards] has faced," comments Corlett. "I think she was just able to move the ball around and hit it in some spots that threw off the defense a bit."
Throughout her two years The Farm, the sophomore has proven more than a one-trick pony. Although she provides instant offense with her hard hitting, Richards' value to the team goes beyond her attacking abilities. As her 21 digs against the Gators would suggest, the Orem (Utah) native is an excellent defender with a great nose for the ball. She also played a vital role in Stanford's passing schemes, sharing the ball control duties with junior Courtney Schultz and senior Jen Hucke.
Only a freshman, Franci Girard has developed into a lethal offensive threat in the middle and on Saturday, Florida experienced firsthand just how deadly the young hitter could be. The 6'2" frosh delivered 11 kills at a team-high .364 clip, thanks to a combination of hard hitting and smart shot selection. In addition to her offensive output, Girard played excellent defense up front. Although she only totaled 3 blocks on the night, she was very active at the net, slowing down the Gator's attacks and making them diggable balls for her teammates.
Although the victory over Florida was a huge accomplishment, Stanford is hungry for more postseason success. Next up in the Round of 16 is the University of Texas, a long-time rival that is the overall 6th seed in this year's tournament. While Stanford leads the all-time series, 13-7, the two teams have split their four NCAA meetings, with the Longhorns taking their last NCAA match-up, a 3-1 victory in the Sweet Sixteen in 1998. Coached by former USC interim head coach Jerritt Elliott, the Longhorns are an athletic and dangerous team capable of playing with anyone in the country.
"They attack well from the outside. They also have a freshman setter running the team and who has done very well… Their middles are big," says Corlett. "They played a pretty tough schedule and the Big 12 is a good conference. They took [No. 1] Nebraska to five once and beat Florida, so we aren't looking past them."
Leading the Texas charge is Big 12 Player of the Year Mira Topic, a 6'3" senior. A product of Croatia, the big power hitter bombs away from the outside at a rate of 5.65 kills a game. Aiding the Croatian Crusher on the offensive end is fellow senior Bethany Howden, averaging 4.02 kills a game. Howden began the year accompanying Topic on the outside, but has since switched back to the middle, where her blocking skills are better utilized, as she leads the squad in blocks, with 1.02 a game. Topic and Howden were named to the 2004 Big 12 First Team for their stellar in-conference play and their leadership will be invaluable as the Longhorns look to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1998.
Running the show in Austin is freshman Michelle Moriarty. A member of the United States Junior National Team, the Houston (Tex.) native assumed the starting position since Day One and has produced immediate results for the Longhorns. Setting the team to an exceptional .309 hitting percentage, the 5'9" Moriarty is averaging 13.14 assists a game, proving to be one of collegiate volleyball's up-and-comers.
The key for a Stanford win will come down to fundamentals: passing and serving. The Longhorns run a varied offense with four players averaging at least 2.00 kills. If their passing system breaks down due to aggressive serving by the Cardinal, Moriarty's only option will be to set the ball to the outside, producing a predictable offense that will be easier to defend. The backcourt trio of Richards, Hucke, and Schultz must exhibit good ball control in order for Cardinal setter Bryn Kehoe to consistently set Lizzie Suiter and Girard in the middle, effectively opening up the outside for Nnamani, Richards, and Hucke to bomb away without the presence of a double block. While Texas' main concern will obviously be to stop Nnamani from doing too much damage with her vicious attacks, the more help she receives from her teammates, the easier her job becomes to decimate the Longhorn defense. To go along with good passing, Stanford has to play good floor defense. Against the Gators, the Cardinal averaged 20.0 digs a game, a solid improvement over their season average of 15.5 and they will have to maintain their excellent defensive efforts on Friday. Stopping Topic will be no easy task, but if the Cardinal continually dig her attacks, she may be frustrated into making unforced errors. In Nebraska's 3-0 win against Texas in mid-November, the Husker defense keyed on Topic all night long, and as a result, she hit negative for the match and the Longhorns' biggest threat was neutralized.
Finally, in order for Stanford to advance to the Elite Eight, Nnamani has to be on the top of her game. The team relies on her too much for her to go in a funk. She is the undisputed team leader and with all of her international experience, it will be imperative for the 6'1" senior to bring her "A" game to give her squad the necessary confidence it needs to defeat Texas.
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