Stanford Rides Nnamani to Finals

The ebb and flow of play by a pair of Pac-10 rivals Thursday in Long Beach gave volleyball fans everything they wanted from a Final Four semifinal match - and more. Stanford and Washington battled for four exciting games, but it was ultimately too much <b>Ogonna Nnamani</b> as the Card advanced to Saturday's title match against Minnesota.

The 2004 Pac-10 Champions started off their year with 22 consecutive victories and were also ranked the #1 team in the country for a span of seven weeks in October and November. Two of their players qualified for All-American honors. The squad that flexed its muscle out on the West Coast wasn't perennial powerhouse Stanford. Nor was it USC, the defending two-time national champions. The winner of the toughest conference in America was none other than Washington.

Yes, you read correctly. The Washington Huskies, who were dwelling at the bottom of the Pac-10 just four seasons ago, had a breakout year in 2004, capturing their first Pac-10 Championship with a 16-2 record and advancing to the Final Four, the furthest they have ever gone in NCAA competition. Despite the Huskies boasting a veteran-laden line-up, the two players who have thrived under head coach Jim McLaughlin's system are two underclassmen – sophomore setter Courtney Thompson and freshman outside hitter Christal Morrison. Thompson garnered First Team All-American accolades this year, dishing out 14.66 assists a game while setting the team to an impressive 0.286 hitting percentage. Morrison was voted the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year after a spectacular debut season, averaging 4.21 kills, 2.66 digs, and 0.75 blocks a game. Sanja Tomasevich would have joined her younger teammates on one of the All-American teams, but a broken hand suffered in practice in mid-October sidelined the native from Serbia and Montenegro. Since her return on November 18, Tomasevich has shown no ill effects of her injury, producing 4.69 kills and 4.73 digs a game.

Although Stanford does not possess the balance that Washington has displayed throughout the season, their ace-in-the-hole is none other than Ogonna Nnamani. The four-time All-American has carried Stanford on her back, refusing to lose by torching opponents with blistering blasts from all over the court. A career-high 37 kills against the Huskies on November 18 enabled the Cardinal to snatch a dramatic 28-30, 11-30, 30-27, 34-32, and 20-18 victory, snapping Washington's 22-match win streak. A game for the ages, the two teams battled back and forth for two-and-a-half hours before a service ace by senior Jen Hucke closed out the home court thriller for Stanford.

In the lasting moments of her collegiate career, Nnamani has been nothing short of amazing, willing her team to victories against impossible odds. Aiding Nnamani on the outside has been fellow senior Jen Hucke (2.67 k/g, 2.15 d/g) and sophomore Kristin Richards (3.55 k/g, 3.40 d/g). In addition, first-year starter Lizzie Suiter has done an excellent job manning the middle, silencing critics who believed the inexperience in the middle would leave Stanford vulnerable in 2004; she led the Pac-10 in blocks with 1.52 a game.

In an awesome display of offensive firepower, Nnamani fueled her squad into the national championship match Thursday evening in Long Beach (Calif.), as the 6'1"outside hitter hammered down a match-high 33 kills. Richards and Hucke were also instrumental in the four-game win, as they combined for 25 kills and 32 digs on the night to complement Nnamani's dominating attacks. The Cardinal also played incredible floor defense against the Huskies, totaling 91 digs in the 30-25, 23-30, 30-27, and 30-24 nail-biter. Washington was led by the outside duo of Tomasevich and Brie Hagerty, as each tallied 21 and 20 kills to pace the Huskies. Libero Candace Lee and middle blocker Darla Myhre guarded the court well, posting game-highs of 34 digs and 13 blocks, but Nnamani proved to be too much for her Pacific Northwest rivals to handle tonight.

Game One


Stanford: Ogonna Nnamani, 6'1", OH; Kristin Richards, 5'11", OH; Lizzie Suiter, 6'2", MB; Franci Girard, 6'1", MB; Jen Hucke, 6'1", OH; Bryn Kehoe, 5'11", S; Courtney Schultz, 6'1", L

Washington: Sanja Tomasevich, 6'1", OH; Brie Hagerty, 6'1", OH; Darla Myhre, 6'2', MB; Jessica Veris, 6'1", MB, Kaitlin Leck, 6'1", OPP; Courtney Thompson, 5'8", S; Candace Lee, 5'7", L

Outside hitter Brie Hagerty started the Final Four festivities off with a powerful cross-court kill that went untouched to give the Huskies the first point of the match. However, Stanford played loose and dominated Washington early, posting a 9-4 advantage after a kill from outside hitter Kristin Richards. The Huskies made some uncharacteristic errors that led to their deficit, and by the time they had gathered themselves, Stanford had bolted to a 22-10 advantage. Nnamani was to blame for much of the Huskies' woes, as she throttled the Washington defense for 11 kills in the first game alone. However, head coach Jim McLaughlin settled his troops down and they mounted a serious comeback. Middle blocker Darla Myhre got things going for her team, as she posted four blocks in the opening frame to give her team new life. With a more intensified effort on defense, Washington was able to close the gap to just three points at 25-28 after Myhre blasted an attack out of the middle. However, Nnamani and middle blocker Liz Suiter would close the door on Washington with back-to-back kills to take Game One 30-25.

Game Two


Stanford: Ogonna Nnamani, 6'1", OH; Kristin Richards, 5'11", OH; Lizzie Suiter, 6'2", MB; Franci Girard, 6'1", MB; Jen Hucke, 6'1", OH; Bryn Kehoe, 5'11", S; Courtney Schultz, 6'1", L

Washington: Sanja Tomasevich, 6'1", OH; Brie Hagerty, 6'1", OH; Darla Myhre, 6'2', MB; Jessica Veris, 6'1", MB, Kaitlin Leck, 6'1", OPP; Courtney Thompson, 5'8", S; Candace Lee, 5'7", L

After coming back to almost snatch Game One away from the Cardinal, the Huskies opened up Game Two determined not to put themselves in such a hole again. After playing even with Stanford for the first 12 points, the Purple and White went on a 4-0 run to take a 10-6 lead, thanks to two Sanja Tomasevich kills and two big Washington blocks, first on Nnamani and then on Franci Girard. Stanford continued to dip into the Nnamani well for points, but it was still not enough to overcome its deficit. Led by Hagerty's seven kills in Game Two, the Huskies increased their lead to 17-11 after libero Courtney Schultz was unable to handle the tough jump serve hit by Jessica Veris. Another reason for the Washington resurgence was the play of injured opposite Christal Morrison. Due to knee and foot injuries, the 6'2' opposite was relegated to back-row duties. However, her back-row attacks proved to be another offensive option for setter Courtney Thompson to utilize, as Morrison hit .750 for three kills in Game Two. A service ace by Tomasevich set up game point for her team at 29-23 and a two plays later, Schultz served the ball long to account for the final margin, 30-23.

Game Three


Stanford: Ogonna Nnamani, 6'1", OH; Kristin Richards, 5'11", OH; Lizzie Suiter, 6'2", MB; Franci Girard, 6'1", MB; Jen Hucke, 6'1", OH; Bryn Kehoe, 5'11", S; Courtney Schultz, 6'1", L

Washington: Sanja Tomasevich, 6'1", OH; Brie Hagerty, 6'1", OH; Darla Myhre, 6'2', MB; Jessica Veris, 6'1", MB, Kaitlin Leck, 6'1", OPP; Courtney Thompson, 5'8", S; Candace Lee, 5'7", L

After the intermission, Stanford shook off its sub-par play in the previous game to start off Game Three with a 4-0 run, thanks in part to a Nnamani kill and three consecutive Washington hitting errors. The Cardinal displayed great hitter coverage and their defense picked up considerably, making it difficult for any hitter with whom Thompson connected to put the ball away. Stanford seemed to be running on cruise control and led 8-3 after the Huskies were unable to get the ball over in three contacts. Undaunted by yet another deficit, Washington rallied behind Morrison's deadly jumper, as the velocity and pace of her serve were too much for the Cardinal backcourt to control. After a Nnamani attack went long, the game was tied up at 9-all. The two teams would trade points back and forth until a block set up by Myhre and Tomasevich gave the Huskies the one-point advantage at 16-15. The defensive intensity put forth by Washington allowed their lead to balloon to 21-16. Nnamani was slowed down considerably in the third frame and was not picking up her kills as easily as she had in earlier games. A constant double block and the all-out efforts of libero Candace Lee thwarted Nnamani's attack time and time again, enabling Washington to take the five-point lead. While Nnamani was struggling to get her kills, Hucke picked up her game to give Stanford hope. Following a Veris service error to make the score 22-25, Hucke wrecked havoc on the Huskies serve receive with her tough jump floater, and the Cardinal scored four straight points with the senior behind the line. The momentum of the match had shifted in favor of Stanford, and Washington was never able to recover. After Franci Girard split the block to give her squad a 28-27 edge, back-to-back mental errors cost the Huskies Game Three.

Game Four


Stanford: Ogonna Nnamani, 6'1", OH; Kristin Richards, 5'11", OH; Lizzie Suiter, 6'2", MB; Franci Girard, 6'1", MB; Jen Hucke, 6'1", OH; Bryn Kehoe, 5'11", S; Courtney Schultz, 6'1", L

Washington: Sanja Tomasevich, 6'1", OH; Brie Hagerty, 6'1", OH; Darla Myhre, 6'2', MB; Jessica Veris, 6'1", MB, Kaitlin Leck, 6'1", OPP; Courtney Thompson, 5'8", S; Candace Lee, 5'7", L

With their backs to the wall, Washington staged a 5-3 lead to keep their Championship match hopes alive. However, a great save by Bryn Kehoe led to a back-row Nnamani kill, tying the game up at 5-5. The Pac-10 rivals would continue to trade blows for much of the game until a diving Schultz dig set-up Suiter in the middle, who promptly tipped the ball into the open court for the slim 13-11 edge. McLaughlin called a timeout and after the teams came back onto the court, Hagerty immediately sent the ball into the stands to stave off any hopes of a Cardinal mini-run. While the Huskies looked to the hard-hitting Hagerty for kills, the Cardinal countered with Richards swinging away. Leading up to the fourth game, the sophomore was hitting only 0.100, but she picked up her game considerably to fill in for Nnamani,, who was still finding it difficult to put the ball away. Richards finished Game Four with 5 kills on a stellar .625 clip, and her back-to-back blasts from the left side gave her team a 17-16 lead they would not relinquish. For the rest of the match, the Cardinal did not commit a single hitting error. With each set that Kehoe tossed up into the air, her hitters were swinging with such reckless abandon that the Huskies could only watch helplessly as their NCAA Title hopes quickly slipped away. Nnamani got her 33rd and final kill of the match after Kehoe found the senior on the outside for the uncontested attack, giving Stanford the match-clinching 30-24 Game Four victory.

Game Notes

The game plan for Stanford early on was tp feed the ball to Nnamani and watch her do her magic. With 11 kills in the first game at a .429 clip, it was easy to see why Kehoe set her the ball so much. No matter how hard Washington tried to defend her, the 2004 Olympian could not be stopped. Despite the excellent play from his superstar, Stanford head coach John Dunning knew that it would only be a matter of time before the Huskies would figure out a way to slow down Nnamani; he needed others on the team to pick up their game if Stanford wanted to advance to Saturday's NCAA Final.

"I know one of the things we tried to do at the end of Games Two, Three, and Four was to spread [the offense] out a little bit," says Dunning. "At that point, Kristin Richards and Jen Hucke and both of our middles really stepped up."

When the game was on the line, especially in the later stages of Game Three and Four, both Richards and Hucke established themselves as reliable offensive outlets and the duo were able to come through in the clutch. Richards was particularly effective at tooling the block, using the constant double block to her advantage. In addition, the 5'11" hitter was a primary passer, delivering pinpoint balls to Kehoe all night long. Over on the right side, Hucke was able to pound home timely kills to take some pressure off of Nnamani as the match grew. Her serve was also a huge asset to the team. Her ability to stay cool under stressful conditions allowed her to go on big serving runs at various points of the match that were turning points for Stanford, including the four-point run late in the third game. It was a critical juncture in the contest and Stanford's experience with tight matches all year long had paid off. Whether they were down 11 match points to Washington earlier in the year, or behind two games to one to Florida in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Cardinal had somehow found a way to win against all the odds, creating an aura of confidence that will not let pressure affect their play.

"The amazing thing about athletes is that once they get that feeling that there is magic in the air, they don't start worrying about [losing]," reveals Dunning. "They just go. I don't think they were thinking about [losing] at that point. They just knew they had a chance because of what they went through."

The Huskies put themselves in position to take Game Three by neutralizing Stanford's big weapon. They camped out on Nnamani, and even when they did not roof her, their soft blocks slowed down her lethal attacks just enough for the back-row to dig her. Libero Candace Lee also did a tremendous job tracking down Nnamani's shots and converting them into scoring opportunities for her teammates. Although Nnamani's hitting percentage plummeted to a dismal 0.143 in the third frame, she did not get upset with herself because she knew that her teammates would have her back.

"I wasn't frustrated at all. It's hard when you aren't doing your job offensively, but I have great teammates and they just stepped it up… our energy just picked it up and we just started rolling from there," says Nnamani.

One teammate in particular that played a pivotal role in the match was Stanford libero Courtney Schultz. As a feared middle blocker in high school, Schultz converted midway through her freshman year to the libero position. While she had a wonderful knack for passing, her defensive skills were in need of improvement so much that Dunning coined the phrase "Pasero," as Schultz's main strength in the backcourt position was passing rather than digging. As the years went by, however, the 6'1" junior acquired the necessary knowledge and abilities to be a solid force for Stanford. Friday evening's match was the culmination of all her hard work and effort, as Schultz was solid with her passing and produced a career-high 21 digs. What makes her performance against the Huskies even more amazing is the fact that she sustained an injury earlier in the day, although Schultz's competitive nature was not going to let that "excuse" keep her out of the starting line-up come game time.

A year has passed since Stanford exited the Sweet Sixteen, but the pain of the surprising loss still existed in the minds of the Cardinal. Nnamani was determined not to let her team experience the same fate as last year's squad and did everything within her power to ensure a ticket to the Final Four would be waiting for them come December. While her physical abilities certainly played a factor in Stanford's successful run to Long Beach, it was her upbeat attitude that inspired her teammates and made them believers in themselves, despite all the doubts surrounding them entering the season.

"Ever since we lost at Long Beach [in the 2003 Sweet Sixteen to Washington], I've been thinking to myself everyday, ‘How am I going to help my team get to the Final Four and win a national championship?'" reveals Nnamani. "I talked to my dad about [my goals for the team] and he told me that whoever wants it bad enough, will get it. And I'm a believer that if you want it bad enough, you're gonna get it."

And with Nnamani leading the way for the Cardinal on Saturday, it's a good bet she'll make a believer out of even the most pessimistic fan.

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