Volleyball Retools to Repeat

It seems like yesterday that Ogonna Nnamani hoisted the National Championship trophy for Stanford Volleyball in Long Beach (Calif.). While Nnamani's image remains indelible upon our memory, a new Cardinal cast is ready for a new season. Stanford opens tonight in the 2005 AVCA/NACWAA Showcase against #5-ranked Penn State. It should again be an exciting season, with a chance for a second straight national title.

2004 Record: 30-6 (National Champions/2nd Place Pac-10)

John Dunning, Head Coach, 5th Season
Denise Corlett, Associate Head Coach, 10th Season
Jason Mansfield, Assistant Coach, 2nd Season
Damian Elder, Assistant Coach, 2nd Season

Katie Goldhahn, 5-11, S
Courtney Schultz, 6-1, L

Michelle Mellard, 6-3, MB
Njideka Nnamani, 5-9, OPP/OH
Kristin Richards, 6-0, OH
Lizzie Suiter, 6-2, MB
Jennifer Wilson, 5-11, MB

Franci Girard, 6-1, MB/OPP
Kirsten Hornbeak, 5-9, DS/L
Bryn Kehoe, 5-11, S

Foluke Akinradewo, 6-3, MB
Cynthia Barboza, 6-0, OH
Jessica Fishburn, 6-0, DS/L
Alex Fisher, 6-1, OH/OPP
Erin Waller, 6-1, MB/OPP

Players Lost
Leahi Hall, 5-9, DS/L
Jen Hucke, 6-1, OPP
Ogonna Nnamani, 6-1, OH

John Dunning knows a thing or two about winning. He has compiled a staggering resume over his 20 years as the head coach of the University of Pacific and Stanford University, complete with four national championships, seven Final Fours, and numerous conference titles. Now in his fifth year on The Farm, Dunning will look to add to his already impressive list of accomplishments as the 2005 season gets underway this weekend in Omaha, Neb., when his team takes on the Penn State Nittany Lions in the first match of the 2005 AVCA/NACWAA Showcase.

Stanford returns a veteran line-up that features two potential All-Americans and introduces a crop of freshmen who could make an immediate impact on the collegiate game. Despite the graduation of 2004 Olympian Ogonna Nnamani, along with fellow classmates Jen Hucke and Leahi Hall, the Cardinal are confident that they have what it takes reach San Antonio, Tex. and repeat their inspired national championship run from a year ago.

"We have some outstanding talent coming into our program and a lot of experience in our older players as well," declares junior Kristin Richards about the prospects of the forthcoming year. "I am extremely excited about this upcoming season and can't wait to get started with competition to see where how far we can go."

Graduating the Pac-10's career record holder in kills will hurt Stanford's offensive production, as Nnamani accounted for over 38 percent of their kills in 2004. This year, the sets will be more spread out and allow more players to become involved on offense, rather than a focus on one go-to hitter.

"All of our players will agree that we don't have anyone who is going to get that many sets this year, and that it wouldn't be the best thing for us. It wouldn't be right, at this point, to ask anybody to carry that kind of load," comments Dunning.

Without a tested go-to hitter on the team, it will be up to setter Bryn Kehoe to keep the opponents guessing in order for them not key on one specific teammate. As a prep star for Saint Ursula Academy (North Bend, Ohio), Kehoe was the master of running an up-tempo offense, designed to deceive blockers and set up her hitters in favorable positions. With a variety of front-row attackers to work with this season, she will revert back to the days in junior ball, running complicated plays and making it look so easy. In addition to her overall volleyball knowledge and leadership skills, the 5'11" sophomore is a great all-around player with the necessary tools to be effective in all rotations, whether it be up at the net with her blocking or in the back row with her digging. A member of the U.S. Junior National Team the previous three summers, Kehoe will be a key component to the Cardinal's quest to claim back-to-back national titles and will contend for All-American honors.

Receiving many of Kehoe's sets will be Richards, a 6'0" outside hitter who has established herself as one of the best all-around players in the country in her two years of collegiate action. As Stanford's top returning point scorer, the Orem, Utah native is well known for her hard hitting and aggressive nature in the front row, but has also earned a reputation for being a tough-nosed defender who can get it done from either end of the court. The experience of being a starter for the U.S. Senior National Team this summer will certainly benefit her in the long run, as she was able to showcase her abilities and compete against the best teams in the world.

Overlooked for All-American honors in 2004, the two-time All-Pac-10 Selection has worked hard on all facets of her game during the off-season to prepare herself for a banner year. The determination and desire to raise the level of her game is just a part of her personality that allows her to thrive in volleyball, and those traits make her an asset to the Cardinal squad.

"She's going to find way to make herself get better because she wants to be an All-American, and she wants her team to win the national championship every year," reveals Dunning about his returning star hitter.

The gap that Nnamani has left could take some time to fill, but luckily for the Cardinal, defense is an area that can be relied upon in 2005. Returning for another chance at an NCAA title are middle blockers Lizzie Suiter and Franci Girard. Both Suiter and Girard stepped into a starting role last year without much experience – Suiter was a sophomore who had only seen action in three games as a freshman, and Girard was a true freshman. The tandem was a big reason why Stanford was ranked among the top blocking teams in the country, and individually, Suiter's 1.52 blocks per game placed her among the Top 25 in the country. In addition, the 6'2" native of Aspen, Colo. totaled 198 total blocks, only 10 shy of Kim Oden's single-season school record. Girard, meanwhile, played well beyond her years, posting consistent numbers in both kills and blocks. This year, Girard looks to transition to the right side, although her experience in the middle will give Dunning another weapon to choose from throughout the season.

"In the Final Four, they played great. As the year went, they got better because they got more experience, they learned more and they improved," states Dunning. "They will get more sets this year and they will stay focused on blocking. They both know they'll have to fight to get out on the court because there are people who want to play in the middle this year."

The competition that Dunning speaks of will come in the form of two highly touted freshmen – Foluke Akinradewo and Erin Waller. The duo is a part of PrepVolleyball.com's top-rated recruiting class of 2005. Akinradewo is an athletic 6'3" middle blocker who has played for the Junior National Team the past three years and was a starter alongside Kehoe at the recent Under-20 World Championships this past July, held in Ankara, Turkey. Waller was honored as PrepVolleyball.com's National High School Player of the Year after leading Incarnate Word to an undefeated season and its second consecutive Missouri State Title as a senior. The 6'1" hitter played in the middle during her prep years, but could also see time at the opposite position in college. Adding to the Cardinal's new list of talent include outside hitters Cynthia Barboza, Alex Fisher, and Jessica Fishburn.

Barboza comes to The Farm as the most recognized high school player in America, after winning the Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year award in July. The 6'0" Long Beach, Calif. native also was named an alternate to the 2004 Olympic squad. Barboza's Stanford debut will be highly anticipated, as she is an all-around player who can get the job done on both sides. Fisher is a local product, earning national recognition as the star player for The Menlo School the past four seasons. She is another versatile athlete who could see time on either the left or the right side. Fisher does have an injury history with her shoulder, however, which Dunning says may necessitate handling her cautiously this year. Fishburn rounds out the Fabulous Five, and despite being an outside hitter in high school, she will convert to the libero position where her ball-handling skills will be fully utilized by the Cardinal coaching staff.

"[The freshmen] add depth. All five of them are all very good. They play a variety of positions," notes Dunning. "We have left sides, opposites, middles, and liberos. Depending on how they react when they get here and their health, I'd say they all have a chance to play."

With only five schools in the 23 years of NCAA volleyball to ever repeat as national champions, Stanford will have a chance to not only join a select group of teams to have achieved such greatness, but to also make history. If the Cardinal take first place in San Antonio this December, they will be the only school to have won back-to-back NCAA crowns on two separate occasions. The first Stanford squad to accomplish such a feat was the Kristin Folkl-led 1996 and 1997 squads. With the loss of one of the greatest players to ever grace college volleyball in Ogonna Nnamani, many critics doubt the Cardinal's ability to pull off the difficult repeat. However, with an experienced line-up and the addition of a star-studded freshmen class, optimism runs high on The Farm in anticipation of another successful campaign.

"Losing Ogonna is obviously a huge loss and that is going to be something that we are going to have to try really hard to deal with in the most mature way, but I also think that we will surprise a lot of people with the amount of athleticism and talent that we have this year," says Richards. "The ultimate and ideal goal for this group is to win the national championship again and I think that this is very realistic."

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