Cardinal, Huskies Fight for Finals

After travelling to Tallahassee and Green Bay, Stanford has tasted a national flavor to their 2004 NCAA Tournament. Now the women's volleball team faces off today in Southern California against Pac-10 foe Washington in the National Semifinals. Roland Hu is in Long Beach to bring you all the action this weekend from the Final Four.

Stanford. Nebraska. Hawaii. Penn State. USC. Over the years, these schools have distinguished themselves as national powers on the Division I volleyball stage. As a result of their ability to annually sign Fab 50 recruits, along with their consistent post-season success, these programs have managed to stay near the top, not only in the rankings, but also in public perception. While it may take many years for a ball club to gain membership into this select club, one program in particular is looking to crash its way into the upper echelon of collegiate volleyball. And if the 2004 season is any indication, the University of Washington may have already arrived.

Before the arrival of head coach Jim McLaughlin in 2001, Washington was considered a solid program in the toughest conference in the country, though never nearly as successful as their Pac-10 counterparts: Stanford and UCLA. Still, many quality players like Angela Bransom, Melinda Beckenhauer and Makare Desilets were attracted to Seattle, and Washington managed to string together a few good seasons, reaching the Elite Eight on two occasions (1988 & 1997) and finishing ranked in the final Top 25 poll six times. However, after compiling a dismal 25-52 record from 1998 to 2000, McLaughlin came on board to replace Bill Neville as head coach and a new era for Washington volleyball began.

In just three short years, McLaughlin has created a volleyball juggernaut in the Pacific Northwest, emphasizing ball control and a balanced offense. Finishing with a losing record in his first season, the former Kansas State head coach got his team back on track the following year, guiding his squad to a second round appearance in the NCAA Tournament. By the time 2003 had been completed, Washington had boosted its national visibility by reaching the Elite Eight. Just a mere six points away from their first Final Four, the Huskies lost a tough five-game match to Minnesota.

In 2004, players used the phrase "six points from the Final Four" to push themselves in practice, a constant reminder of just how close Washington had been to national prominence. Integrating a veteran-laden line-up with some fresh new talent has enabled McLaughlin to take the Huskies to new heights this season. Not only did Washington begin the year with a school record 22 consecutive victories, but it also was voted as the #1 team in the country for the first time in program history on October 4. All the success and triumphs that have occurred up in Seattle this year can be directly attributed to McLaughlin and his coaching methods.

"It has been a very fast rise [for Washington] in the women's collegiate volleyball scene. Washington has been amazing," states Stanford Head Coach John Dunning. "They play the type of volleyball that anyone can appreciate it because they try and minimize errors. They just don't make many mistakes when they play. They can be very frustrating to play against."

One team that has discovered just how frustrating Washington can be is Stanford. Prior to McLaughlin's hiring, the Bay Area school dominated the rivalry with its Pacific Northwest opponent, owning a 32-2 advantage. In the last two years, however, the Huskies have beaten the Cardinal three out of the last five times they have played. Washington was responsible for Stanford's early, and somewhat unexpected, exit in last year's NCAA Sweet Sixteen - a fact that still lingers for this Cardinal squad.

"I think [the loss to Washington in last year's Sweet Sixteen] factors into things," reveals outside hitter Kristin Richards. "We are excited to play them and maybe have a chance to knock them out. I know last year, we didn't expect [to lose], but it was a real rough loss for us."

Stanford gained some measure of satisfaction this year by dealing Washington its first loss of the year in mid-November, as outside hitter Ogonna Nnamani pounded a career-high 37 kills to lead her team to the dramatic 28-30, 11-30, 30-27, 34-32, and 20-18 upset. Despite facing a total of 11 match points, the Cardinal never lost faith in their abilities and came away from the match on an incredible high. In today's NCAA Final Four semifinal match pitting an established powerhouse against a true up-and-comer, anything is bound to happen. The anticipated showdown between the two Pac-10 rivals will guarantee fans some great volleyball action and another five-game thriller is not out of the question.

Here are the match-ups:

Outside Hitters

Washington
Sanja Tomasevic, 6'1", SR (4.69 k/g, 3.58 d/g)
Christal Morrison, 6'2", FR (4.21 k/g, 2.66 d/g, 0.75 b/g)

Sanja Tomasevic has established herself as one of the best all-around players in the country, as her hitting and digging abilities earned her Second Team All-American honors in 2003. A broken hand suffered in practice midway through the season derailed any hopes of a second go-around at national recognition, but to the senior, individual awards do not matter as much as how well the team performs. Taking six weeks to heal her hitting hand, Tomasevich is now back on the court, stronger than ever. Christal Morrison has stepped into a starting role in her first year and embraced all the pressures that are associated with being an integral piece of a Top 5 program. With the ability to play either on the left or the right side, the Second Team All-American has made the transition from high school to college look very easy. Unfortunately, the freshman is playing at less than 100%, due to a torn meniscus she suffered right before the NCAA Tournament began.

Stanford
Ogonna Nnamani, 6'1", SR (6.44 k/g, 2.25 d/g)
Kristin Richards, 5'11", SO (3.71 k/g, 3.75 d/g)

The outside hitter duo of Ogonna Nnamani and Kristin Richards is arguably the best one-two punch in the country. Nnamani uses her Olympic experience to complement her raw athletic talent and the result is an unstoppable offensive force that cannot be contained. As the season has progressed, the senior has grown stronger and more efficient with her attacks, peppering teams with kills from all areas of the court. Her greatest gift is the ability to put the ball away with authority and she has done so regularly throughout her career. Richards can also bang with the best of them, but her all-around game is what makes her so invaluable to the Cardinal. Even as a freshman, she stepped in and established herself as the team's best passer and defender and continues to maintain that title. This season, the team has lived and died by its outside attack and Stanford fans are hoping that Nnamani and Richards will once again come through.

Edge: Stanford

Middle Blockers

Washington
Darla Myhre, 6'2, JR (1.85 k/g, 1.41 b/g)
Jessica Veris, 6'1", JR (1.76 k/g, 0.81 b/g)

While Washington's middle blockers are not the central focus of McLaughlin's system, Darla Myhre and Jessica Veris have contributed greatly to the 2004 campaign. Myhre is a player who has distinguished herself as a blocker early in her career and she has improved her attacking skills to make herself more of an offensive threat. The 6'1" Canadian import leads the team in hitting percentage with a .335 clip. Veris is a versatile player, with the ability to play either on the outside or in the middle. Her volleyball skills are among the best on the team and her quick arm swing make her very difficult to block.

Stanford
Lizzie Suiter, 6'2", SO (1.21 k/g, 1.52 b/g)
Franci Girard, 6'1", FR (1.80 k/g, 0.94 b/g)

After much concern regarding the departure of last year's senior middle blockers, Lizzie Suiter and Franci Girard have proven that experience may be overrated. Before this season, Suiter only had three games of court time to her credit, but has blossomed in her sophomore year, leading the Pac-10 in blocks and anchoring the Cardinal frontline defense. She is a fundamentally sound blocker with great instincts and lateral mobility. Girard, in her first season in the Cardinal and White, has exceeded all expectations to garner a starting role. Girard is an athletic leaper who possesses cat-like quickness. Her contributions to the Stanford offense has taken some pressure off of Nnamani and Richards and she will have to continue to attack the ball in order for Stanford to be successful.

Edge: Even

Opposite

Washington
Katilin Leck, 6'1", SR (3.54 k/g, 1.74 d/g)

Kaitlin Leck, the incumbent starter on the right side, was replaced in the starting line-up at the beginning of the year by Christal Morrison. However, rather than pout about her position, the left-handed Leck kept her spirits high during the season. When Sanja Tomasevich broke her hand, McLaughlin turned to Leck to take over the opposite position, as he slid Morrison over to the left, and the senior performed like a true veteran. She is one of the best attackers on the team and her jump serve is one of the most difficult serves to pass, scoring many free points for Washington.

Stanford
Jen Hucke, 6'1" SR (2.67 k/g, 2.15 d/g)

Throughout her Stanford career, Jen Hucke has been placed in many different positions, ranging from outside hitter to the libero. Last year, Hucke found her true calling on the right side and has excelled ever since. She has had a banner year this season, providing Kehoe with another reliable option on offense and her improved defense and passing has helped stabilize the backcourt. Plagued by serving errors for much of her career, Hucke abandoned the topspin jump serve for the more consistent jump floater, and her team is reaping the rewards of the switch.

Edge: Even

Setters

Washington
Courtney Thompson, 5'8", SO (14.66 a/g, 2.29 d/g)

Courtney Thompson has proven to be one of the best young setters in the nation. Her ability to accurately set her hitters has made her very popular with her teammates, as she runs an efficient offense that has three players averaging over four kills a game. Though she is only 5'8", the First Team All-American makes up for it with her heart and her determination. She has quarterbacked Washington to one of the most successful seasons in school history and she would love nothing better than to cap it off with a national title.

Stanford
Bryn Kehoe, 5'11", FR (12.26 a/g, 2.74 d/g)

Entering the season, many expected a setter's duel between incumbent Stanford setter Katie Goldhahn and freshman Bryn Kehoe. Luckily for Kehoe, an early injury to Goldhahn allowed the freshman to impress the coaching staff with her setting abilities, virtually locking up the starting position for the rest of the year. Kehoe is an intelligent setter who is also one of the better blocking setters out there. In addition, her digging skills are top-notch, as she was the starting libero for the United States Junior National Team. In addition, her never-say-die attitude is what sets her apart from many of her peers.

Edge: Washington

Libero

Washington
Candace Lee, 5'7", JR (5.85 d/g)

For someone who was about to give up her volleyball career after her high school playing days, Candace Lee has become one of the premier liberos in the country. A three-year starter for McLauglin, Lee is a gifted athlete who utilizes her quickness and understanding of the game to frustrate opposing hitters, easily digging up their attacks. In addition to anchoring the Husky floor defense, Lee's pinpoint passing enables Thompson to run a balanced and dangerous offense that keeps the other team off-balanced. Lee has accumulated 1,474 digs thus far in her career, shattering Washington's school record of 1,237 digs, formerly held by Lisa McCammond.

Stanford
Courtney Schultz, 6'1", JR (2.47 d/g)

Recruited out of high school as a utility player, Courtney Schultz never envisioned herself as a libero at the collegiate level. However, halfway through her freshman year, Dunning decided to place Schultz in the back-row, as he believed her feel for the ball would improve the team's ball control. Averaging 2.08 digs a game her first year as the libero, Schultz experienced a sophomore slump and managed to dig only 1.36 balls a game in 2003. However, Dunning never lost faith in the 6'1" junior, emphasizing constant improvement. This year, Schultz has upped her average by nearly one dig to 2.47 and she is a major reason why Stanford earned a trip to Long Beach.

Edge: Washington

Intangibles

Ogonna Nnamani and Jen Hucke know what it feels like to win a national championship. Washington is playing in its first Final Four. Thus, some jitters are to be expected from the Huskies, and if they are not able to overcome them, it could be a long night for McLaughlin & Co. In addition, Washington had 11 match points the last time the two teams faced off and was not able to pull off the victory. Their inability to convert with so many chances could play a factor, especially if the game goes five matches. Christal Morrison will not be at her best and that is a huge blow to Washington, though their depth could make up for it. Stanford is riding on a 13-match win streak and is the hottest team in the tournament. Their confidence is riding high and they have Ogonna Nnamani on their side. With her spearheading the Cardinal attack, she may be too much for the opposition to handle.

Edge: Stanford.


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