Final Four Bound!

If you looked at the Cardinal's bracket a couple weeks ago, you feared roadblocks like #10 Texas and #13 Florida. But Stanford had their hands full Saturday when they had to face Wisconsin in Green Bay in the Elite Eight. Senior sensation <b>Ogonna Nnamani</b> came through in the three-game win to carry the Card to Long Beach and the NCAA Final Four...

Ogonna Nnamani is not a screamer. She is not big on yelling at her teammates. She does not get all riled up and in your face if a mistake is made. But just because the senior from Normal, Ill. is not vocal during matches, it does not mean she's not a team leader. On Saturday afternoon, the 6'1" outside hitter let her arm swing do the talking and as a result, Stanford is off to its 15th Final Four. Hammering 27 kills in the Cardinal's 30-18, 31-29, and 30-26 victory over host Wisconsin, Nnamani knew her actions on the court would be enough to spark her team to victory.

"I don't like to talk too much because I think it's annoying sometimes. I just talk when I need to and try to get them motivated somehow," offers the 2004 Olympian.

Luckily for Cardinal fans, Nnamani's teammates had plenty of incentive in their Elite Eight match-up against the Badgers. Not only was a berth to Long Beach, Calif. on the line, but the team also wanted to send a message to the NCAA Committee for seeding them too low. Despite finishing the month of November undefeated, including wins over five ranked teams, Stanford found itself as the 11th seed overall and shipped halfway across the country for the first two rounds of the tournament. However, after winning the Green Bay Regional without dropping a game to either No. 10 Texas or No. 22 Wisconsin, it is safe to say that the Cardinal's message has delivered loud and clear.

At the beginning of the season, many critics did not give Stanford a chance to even advance to the Round of Eight. After graduating three senior middle blockers, the front-line was left in the hands of an inexperienced sophomore and a freshman. In addition, passing and floor defense were suspect areas in which many did not feel Stanford would be able to address in order to realistically contend for a spot to Long Beach. However, Head Coach John Dunning never lost faith in his squad and with his constant encouragement, many players significantly improved over the course of the season, namely middles Lizzie Suiter and Franci Girard and libero Courtney Schultz.

"We didn't know what to think of ourselves [coming into the season]. They sure exceeded my expectations after Sept. 23rd. We weren't very good at that point, but we've gotten better every week of the season," reflects the fourth-year Cardinal coach. "They've had a great heart, a real neat excitement about it, mixing in the freshmen with the older players."

With freshman Bryn Kehoe and the inexperienced duo of Suiter and Girard manning the middle, Stanford was bound to run into some problems early on in the season. Losing twice to Saint Mary's College was certainly not a highlight for the team. Neither was the 3-0 drubbing they took up in Seattle, courtesy of Stanford's Final Four opponent, Washington. However, the team is now riding on a 13-match winning streak, partly due to Nnamani's powerful attacks and unreal vertical.

After the match, Dunning joked that, "We have a good team and we have one player on our side that helps out a little bit, that's for sure."

When your star player is efficiently putting away a third of the team's total kills, she is helping out more than just a little bit. Because of Nnamani's ability to jump through the roof, the sets she receives at the antennas are unlike any other at the college level.

"Yeah, [Nnamani's sets are] pretty high," attests Kehoe. "It's a lot different than any set I've ever done, but she hits it well and we win."

Despite the offensive power Nnamani provides to her squad, her teammates have proven to be pretty talented themselves, as many contributed to the victory over Wisconsin. Aiding Nnamani on the outside was sophomore Kristin Richards, who displayed her all-around gifts by collecting nine kills, 13 digs and two blocks. Incidentally, Richards broke Barbara Fontana's 18-year single season record for digs with her fourth save of the afternoon; the 5'11" hitter now has 469 digs on the year. Jennifer Hucke continued to play well at opposite, as the senior accumulated 10 kills and 11 digs against the Badgers to complement Stamford's outside attackers. In the middle, Suiter played a solid match, accounting for four kills and four blocks. Even though the 6'2" quick hitter played only five games her entire freshman year, Suiter has emerged as one of Stanford's most indispensable players, as she and Nnamani are the only Cardinal members to see action in all 123 games in 2004. In addition, Suiter has climbed up the Stanford record books this year, as her 191 total blocks rank #3 on the single season list on The Farm.

With such a hard-working and gifted group supporting her, Nnamani will undoubtedly be out for blood when the Final Four begins on Thursday. Although Stanford redeemed their earlier loss to former #1 Washington with a miraculous five-game thriller in mid-November, the Huskies were the ones that knocked the Cardinal out last year in the Sweet Sixteen and revenge will undeniably play a factor in the match between the two heavyweights. While a potential national championship will be on the line this week, so too will Nnamani's chances at laying claim to the National Player of the Year award. All season long, Ohio State's Stacey Gordon has been the front-runner for this honor, as her impressive offensive and defensive skills have produced great numbers all across the board. However, Nnamani's eye popping numbers over the second half of the year have given voters something to think about and if she can lead the Cardinal into the NCAA Championship Match, the All-American can make a case for herself as the best collegiate player in the nation.

As their match-up with Washington looms near, Nnamani has taken a surprisingly calm approach in dealing with all the stress that comes with the postseason. The Stanford great looks forward to the year's premier event in collegiate volleyball and plans to enjoy her last moments as a Cardinal.

"It's going to be fun. The Final Four is an exciting experience. We just have to go out there and play hard," states Nnamani. "The tough stuff is done… now it's just time to have fun."

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