Volleyball Kills, Thrills to Title #6

Saturday in Long Beach, the Cardinal claimed a crown that will go down as one the great stories in Stanford's storied history of NCAA championships. The 2004 Women's Volleyball squad took down Minnesota in straight games, putting the exclamation point on an inspiring season. The Card won their last 15 matches of the year, losing just three games along the way...

As the Cinderella team of the 2003 NCAA Volleyball Tournament, the 13th-overall seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers rallied their way into their first Final Four, beating higher seeds Pepperdine and Washington in five games to win the Pacific Regional. Although the USC Trojans would end the Gophers' magical season in the national semifinals, the experience of competing in collegiate volleyball's most prestigious event was enough to leave Minnesota in high spirits despite the four-game loss.

Entering the 2004 season, expectations were raised and the goal became not to just qualify for the Final Four, but to win the NCAA title. Even though Minnesota had graduated two-time All-American Cassie Busse, head coach Mike Herbert had enough experience and talent to earn a trip to Long Beach (Calif.), the site of this year's Final Four. The cornerstone of the Gopher squad is not a dominating hitter, but rather a fiery ball of energy who has distinguished herself the past three years as one of the best diggers ever to play in the NCAA. Libero Paula Gentil's flashy style and amazing ability to dig even the hardest attacks have gained her nationwide fame and accolades. Averaging 6.73 digs a game, the native from Brazil was the first libero to gain All-American honors and this year, she was placed on the First Team, along with teammate Kelly Bowman. Gentil was instrumental in Minnesota's four-game victory over USC in Thursday's semifinal, as the Gophers played stifling defense, both up at the net and in the backcourt. The Trojans were unable to get anything past the Gopher wall, as they were blocked 17 times. Even when a ball was able to sneak past the Minnesota block, defenders were in perfect position to dig the hit.

Complementing Minnesota's defense this year has been the left side missiles of outside hitters Erin Martin and Trisha Bratford, who are putting away 5.01 and 3.49 balls a game, respectively. Running the show for the Gophers is not one, but two setters, as Herbert has instilled a 6-2 offense, meaning that a team will always have three hitters up at the net. Once the hitter on the right side rotates to the back, she becomes the setter; the player opposite her, who was previously quarterbacking the team, takes on the role of the attacker. Stanford volleyball aficionados may recall the days of Lisa Sharpley and Cary Wendall, as the two All-Americans ran the 6-2 to perfection by producing a national title in 1994 and a Final Four berth the following year. Lindsay Taatjes and Bowman have been quite the pair on the right side for Herbert, averaging a combined 4.10 kills and 15.40 assists a game. Even more amazing is the fact that both players had limited experience as hitters prior to the 6-2 offense.

With the defensive clinic Minnesota held on Thursday night, many wondered how Stanford would be able to hold up Saturday in the National Championship match, particularly outside hitter Ogonna Nnamani. Fans and experts alike salivated at the match-up between Nnamani and Gentil, as the country's top attacker and defender would face off for the national title. All tournament long, Nnamani has been virtually unstoppable with her blistering attacks, averaging 7.39 kills a game during the playoffs. Whether her swings came from the left side, the middle, or the back-row, the senior always found a way to put the ball on the ground, even in the midst of a constant double, and sometimes triple, block.

As the Gophers would discover Saturday afternoon, Nnamani proved too be too big on offense, as she racked up 29 kills at an unreal .562 hitting percentage to propel Stanford to its sixth national title with a convincing 30-23, 30-27, and 30-21 win. The Cardinal defense continued to peak at the right time, as three Stanford defenders tallied double figures in digs, lead by libero Courtney Schultz's 14 saves. Freshman setter Bryn Kehoe made her presence known by dishing out 48 assists in the win, and her great volleyball instincts and knowledge were on full display with her ability to get her hitters in many favorable situations. Leading the way for the Gophers were Martin and Bratford with 13 kills each in the championship game, while Taatjes had a strong all-around match, tallying 31 assists, five kills, five digs and five blocks. Gentil, despite leaving early in the third game due to an injury, collected a match-high 15 digs to pace the Minnesota defense.

Game One

Starters

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

Minnesota: Lindsey Taatjes, 5'10", S/OH; Kelly Bowman, 5'10", S/OH; Meredith Nelson, 6'3", MB; Jessy Jones, 6'3", MB; Erin Martin, 6'0", OH; Lisa Reinhart, 5'8", DS; Paula Gentil, 5'9", L

Minnesota struck first in the NCAA Championship Match, as middle blocker Jessy Jones put one down to give her team the quick 1-0 lead. However, Stanford immediately countered as Ogonna Nnamani's first attempt resulted in a kill. The two teams would draw even for much of the first game, as Minnesota's backcourt defense was keeping many of the plays alive. For the Cardinal, middle blocker Lizzie Suiter was being very active at the net, using her big hands to soft block the Gopher attacks, creating easy digs for her fellow teammates. Setter Bryn Kehoe was also doing a nice job of distributing the ball, getting everyone involved in the offense early on and taking some pressure off of Nnamani. Three Stanford kills and two Minnesota errors would enable the Cardinal to push ahead in the game at 18-13, a lead they would never relinquish. The Gophers were digging a fair amount of balls, but they were just not able to score points. Kristin Richards was also doing a nice job of using the block to her advantage, obtaining many of her kills by tooling the Great Gopher Wall. The Minnesota middles, Meredith Nelson and Jones, were keeping their team in the game, as the two combined for eight kills in Game One, but Stanford proved to be too experienced and too strong to overcome. A solo block by Richards ended the opening frame, with Stanford winning 30-23.

Game Two

Starters

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

Minnesota: Lindsey Taatjes, 5'10", S/OH; Kelly Bowman, 5'10", S/OH; Meredith Nelson, 6'3", MB; Jessy Jones, 6'3", MB; Erin Martin, 6'0", OH; Marci Peniata, 5'8", DS; Paula Gentil, 5'9", L

After hitting an anemic .133 in the opening frame, setters Lindsey Taatjes and Kelly Bowman adjusted to the Cardinal defenses and enabled their hitters to be more successful with their attacks. Outside hitters Erin Martin and Trisha Bratford, ineffective in Game One, took control and lead the way on offense for the Gophers. The two power hitters combined for 13 kills, although Nnamani would answer back with 12 of her game-high 29 kills in this game. Much like in Game One, the two teams traded blows early on and neither squad could build much of a substantial lead. Blocking was not as much of a factor for Stanford in this game, and as a result, Minnesota was able to go high and outside or run plays for the middles to win points. Trailing by two for much of the match, Minnesota was able to tie it up at 20-20 after Jen Hucke was not able to successfully get her tip shot over the net. The Gophers took the lead at 22-21 after Suiter slammed the ball into the net and they would keep this slim advantage late into the game. After a Taatjes kill to put her team up 27-25, Minnesota looked like it was on the verge of evening the match at one game apiece. However, Nnamani would lead a furious Cardinal comeback, as Stanford scored five consecutive points to snatch Game Two away from the Gophers. Nnamani had a huge role in the 5-0 run, contributing a solo stuff on Nelson and two kills, including the game clincher.

Game Three

Starters

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

Minnesota: Lindsey Taatjes, 5'10", S/OH; Kelly Bowman, 5'10", S/OH; Meredith Nelson, 6'3", MB; Jessy Jones, 6'3", MB; Erin Martin, 6'0", OH; Lisa Reinhart, 5'8", DS; Paula Gentil, 5'9", L

Despite being down two games to zero, Minnesota was still determined to make a game out of it. They came out aggressive and full of energy, staging a three-point lead after a hitting error by Richards made the score 7-4. Two plays later, however, Minnesota suffered a major blow in their hopes of staging any kind of comeback. While diving for a ball, Gentil injured her neck and play was halted for several minutes as the libero laid motionless and facedown. Although Gentil would eventually be escorted off the court, it appeared that she was finished for the match. Senior defensive specialist Jen Bowman took her place, although the spark and fire that Gentil provided was severely lacking. The Gophers would continue to fight hard for parts of the match, but the Cardinal pulled away on a 4-0 run highlighted by a service ace by Kehoe and three kills by Nnamani. By the time Minnesota had recovered, they were down 22-18. With the momentum of the match firmly in hand, Stanford witnessed the Gophers commit four consecutive hitting errors to increase the Cardinal advantage to 27-19. Minnesota was self-destructing at the worst possible moment, and their offense was nowhere to be found. A service error by Kelly Bowman would set up championship point at 29-21 and a back-row kill by Nnamani on the very next point clinched the 2004 NCAA Title for the Cardinal.

Game Notes

They say that while offense will win you games, defense is what brings home the championships. Well "they" have obviously never met Ogonna Nnamani. Playing like a woman on a mission, the 2004 Olympian shredded the vaunted Minnesota defense, consistently hitting over the block with each attack. Even when the back-row trio of Paula Gentil, Marci Peniata, and Lisa Reinhart were able to get a hand on one of Nnamani's hard bullets, they had difficulty controlling the shot and converting it into a scoring opportunity for their team. Heading into the match, Minnesota recognized Nnamani's awesome offensive abilities and realized there wasn't too much they could do to stop her from getting her kills, instead choosing to focus their attention on Stanford's other hitters.

"The game plan was let Ogonna do her thing. There's not a lot you can do to affect her play," admits Minnesota's Meredith Nelson. "We got a lot of good touches on her and we did a lot of good things against her. She is a spectacular player."

While his strategy worked in theory, Minnesota head coach Mike Herbert did not anticipate Nnamani having such a field day against his team. The efficiency at which she hit is unheard of for an outside hitter, especially when pitted against the best defender in the country. There was nothing the Gophers could do to slow Nnamani down. Even when faced against a triple block, the 6'1" senior managed to find the seam and power the ball through for a point. The constant barrage of Nnamani kills eventually broke down the Minnesota defense, allowing Stanford to win its first national title since 2001.

"There are very few people who can attack the ball at the height that she can attack it… she wears you down," says Herbert. "You dig a ball, you block a ball and you think you've got something accomplished and then 30 seconds later, she's hitting on top of the block or hitting at a different angle in which you are not prepared for. She's a very difficult player to cope with."

Head coach John Dunning knew the Minnesota backcourt had the potential to give his star pupil fits, especially Gentil. So Nnamani did the only logical thing: whenever she took a swing: she tried to avoid the First-Team All-American libero.

"[Gentil]'s an awesome defender. I have so much respect for her. I've seen her a make an incredible dig a million times on video," offers Nnamani. "I really tried to stay away from her unless I really had to go to her because she's an excellent defensive player."

Throughout the match, Stanford looked relaxed and poised out on the court. The Cardinal never played tentatively, and all their hitters took aggressive swings at the ball. Because the Gophers were so fixated on Nnamani, freshman Bryn Kehoe was able to isolate many of her hitters and put them in a position where they would only have to face one blocker. The excellent decision-making by the talented setter enabled the team to hit at an astounding .436 clip, and Stanford was that much harder to defend when other players stepped up and did their job on offense. Dunning praised Nnamani for giving confidence to her team and allowing them to play with such a carefree attitude in such a pressure-packed situation.

"The Olympic experience [for Nnamani], playing in the Grand Prix, playing in the Olympics, playing against Brazil and Cuba… she was so far from nervous [before and during the match] that everyone around her was just so relaxed," states the fourth-year head coach.

Aside from the potent offense provided by Nnamani and her teammates, the Cardinal's floor defense played a huge part in their victory. Last year, Stanford exited the tournament in the Sweet Sixteen because of their inability to dig balls. However, throughout the spring and fall practices, the team made a dedicated effort to renew their commitment to keeping the ball alive at any costs. Diving bodies, flailing arms and countless bruises were the result of this new attitude. By the time the tournament started in early December, Stanford had developed into a solid defensive team and their play continued into Saturday's match.

"Our team has put so much effort into talking more in practice, communicating more, and basically playing defense harder," says outside hitter Kristin Richards. "Our team as a whole has been touching a lot more balls and I'm so proud of our entire defensive effort."

Another reason why the Cardinal sent the Gophers packing home in three was due to the blocking of Nnamani and Richards. Against USC, Minnesota exploited the Trojans' weak left side block, as Keao Burdine and Sarah Florian were unable to contain the trio of opposite/setter Lindsey Taatjes and middles Meredith Nelson and Jessy Jones. The three combined to hit .324 for 31 kills from the right side of the court, and their ability to put the ball away was key in Thursday's semi-final win. Nnamani and Richards devoted much of their efforts up at the net to taking away this option for the Gopher offense, and the duo were fairly effective.

"We depend on Ogonna and Kristin a lot on the left [to defend against the opposing opposite] because without exception, we solo blocked them against anybody; we have a lot of confidence in them," comments Dunning. "They are both really good, instinctive, athletic left side blockers. I thought our blocked worked well and our defense played well around it."

Just a few months ago, the Cardinal resembled anything but national champions. On October 23, Washington soundly defeated Stanford up in Seattle in three games. Nnamani had played one of her worst matches this year, and the hopes of finishing off her career with a deep tournament run were looking bleak. However, the 2004 National Co-Player of the Year took the reigns of the team after that loss and inspired the squad to pick up its play. Although they would drop their next match to Cal on October 31, the Cardinal would not lose another contest for the rest of the season.

"We pretty much got worked in Seattle the first time we played Washington and I said, ‘Man, this is really annoying! I know that [the ability to play well] is there, but how are we going to execute on the court… How is it going to work?'" recalls Nnamani. "We just had to find that breakthrough game. Once we showed that we could do it once, it'll be ok. Luckily, that breakthrough happened."

That breakthrough match Nnamani mentioned was against none other than Pac-10 rival USC. Playing at home in front of a sold-out crowd at Burnham Pavilion in early November, the Cardinal swept the Trojans in three games, breaking a string of three consecutive losses to their Southern Californian foe. Not only was the victory surprising, but the manner in which Stanford dominated USC gave them an enormous amount of confidence. From that point on, the Cardinal discovered an aura of invincibility that enhanced and improved team chemistry, an element that proved to be the missing piece to a national championship.

"The team chemistry really came together in the middle of the season," asserts Kehoe. "I always knew we were good enough, but sometimes it take more. What we needed was team chemistry and it happened."

Reflecting back on her recently ended season, Nnamani realizes that she is fortunate enough to begin and end her collegiate career on such a high note, a feeling that she describes as never getting old. And similar to many Stanford fans, the thrill and excitement of watching one of their own bring home yet another trophy to The Farm will never get old either.

Final Four All-Tournament Team

*Ogonna Nnamani, Stanford
Kristin Richards, Stanford
Jen Hucke, Stanford
Bryn Kehoe, Stanford
Erin Martin, Minnesota
Paula Gentil, Minnesota

*MVP of Final Four


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