In recent years, the University of Southern California women's volleyball team has been the toast of college volleyball. Final Fours and national championships were the norm, as head coach Mick Haley had constructed a juggernaut of a team that won back-to-back titles in 2002 and 2003 with a combined overall record of 66-1. Although the Trojans were unable to complete the three-peat last season, they still reachedthe Final Four by knocking off heavily favored and No. 1 seed Nebraska in the regional finals.
Success is once again expected in 2005, although USC has struggled mightily, sporting an uncharacteristic 4-4 record heading into Pac-10 play. Bad passing and suspect setting have been the primary reasons for the downfall of the No. 12 Trojans, and Haley will have his hands full trying to figure out a remedy for his team's weaknesses. He was counting on sophomores Sarah Florian and Jessica Gysin to stabilize the outside hitter positions, but Florian transferred out of the Los Angeles campus in January, while Gysin recently tore her ACL in the summer and is out for the year.
Rather than turning to two youngsters to lead the Women of Troy in 2005, the 2000 Olympic coach has depended on two of his seniors to take charge of the team. Bibiana Candelas and Staci Venski are both averaging a team-best 4.17 kills per game, and the two seniors are versatile enough to garner kills from the outside or out of the middle. Sophomore Diane Copenhagen, who finished a fabulous prep career at nearby St. Francis High School (Mountain View, Calif.), is another threat on the outside, averaging 4.07 kills and 3.03 digs per game. Freshman Kelli Tennant, who has been forced into the starting line-up due to the absence of Florian and Gysin, is chipping in 2.17 kills per game. Junior libero Debora Seilhamer anchors the back row defense with her 5.79 digs per game average.
While USC has been less than impressive this season considering its past history, Stanford fans have reason to celebrate. Despite losing Ogonna Nnamani, the high-flying, hard-hitting four-time All-American, to graduation, the third-ranked Cardinal have not missed a beat, posting 10 consecutive wins en route a 10-1 non-conference record, including victories over No. 4 Penn State and No. 21 Saint Mary's. Two freshmen have been instrumental in sustaining success on The Farm: Cynthia Barboza and Foluke Akinradewo. The duo has started every single match this year, and they have already made a dent in the collegiate scene. Barboza, a 6'0" outside hitter, has shown a rare maturity for a frosh on the court and is averaging a team-leading 4.36 kills and 3.03 digs per game. While Barboza has been getting most of her kills out by the antennas, Akinradewo has been most productive in the middle to the tune of 4.33 kills per game. The 6'3" middle blocker has proven to be virtually unstoppable this season, hitting at an incredible .427 clip, already named the MVP of two preseason tournaments.
In addition to the fantastic freshmen, veterans such as senior Courtney Schultz, junior Kristin Richards and sophomore Bryn Kehoe have also been putting up solid numbers for the Cardinal. Schultz, perhaps one of the tallest liberos in the game, has made huge strides in her defensive game throughout her career and is the leading digger on the team, with 150 digs on the season. Richards, who started for the U.S. Senior National Team this summer, is an all-around threat who can score points up at the net or behind the service line and can defend the back row with the best in the country. Kehoe is the quarterback of the team, setting the team to a .286 hitting percentage, all while distributing 14.12 assists per game. Youthful exuberance and steely upperclassmen leadership has made for a winning combination in Palo Alto and the Cardinal were hoping to extend their winning streak Friday night against the Trojans.
In front of a loud and boisterous home crowd at Maples Pavilion, Stanford took its first step towards the Pac-10 Championship by sweeping USC 31-29, 30-27, and 30-21. Though the match only lasted three games, the victory was anything but easy for the Cardinal, as the Trojans stepped up their level of play for a chance to knock down the defending national champions.
"They were a difficult team and I think the fact that we won in three doesn't give them enough credit because all the games were very close and it could have gone either way," Barboza comments. "We were lucky enough to come through in the end.
One of the reasons why Stanford was able to shake off the Trojans' constant attack was the spectacular play of Barboza. Against USC, she totaled a career high 26 kills to go against just three errors, hitting at an unworldly .511 clip. Her performance was impressive considering she constantly faced a double block, and Southern California's front-line consisted mainly of players in the 6'1" to 6'6" range. Inconsistent passing for the Cardinal left setter Bryn Kehoe no choice but to heave the ball often in Barboza's direction, but she always found a way to put the ball down when her team needed a point. The humble 18-year-old is the first to deflect any individual praise heaped upon her, instead crediting her teammates for the triumph over the Trojans. However, the Long Beach, Calif. native is slowly becoming the Cardinal's go-to hitter in pressure situations, a role with which she will have to become more familiar as the season progresses.
"Tonight was a really good offensive match for [Barboza]," John Dunning praises. "She's a very experienced player who we ought to be able to go. The more she gets used to the game and we figure out how to play together, she'll be able to do what she did tonight."
Another freshman also made quite an impact for the Cardinal tonight. No, it wasn't Foluke Akinradewo, but rather Erin Waller, a middle blocker out of St. Louis, Mo. Though she participated in only one game, her clutch play stymied the Trojans, not allowing them to pull ahead of the home team. In the opening frame, Stanford held a comfortable four-point lead for much of game, until USC mounted a furious rally and held a game point at 29-28 after a Copenhagen kill. Dunning substitutued Waller for starting middle blocker Lizzie Suiter at that critical juncture, and the frosh instantly picked up her first and only kill of the match to even the score. The Cardinal would end up winning the next two points to take Game One, 31-29. Many coaches would not dream of putting a freshman into such a situation, especially if it was her first appearance of the match, but the fifth-year Stanford head coach knew his first-year player would be able to handle the pressure.
"We were in a rotation where we could either set Kristin or set someone a ball on the other side of the court. So we put Erin in because she is a really good slide hitter. She's very experienced, so she wasn't afraid at that point either," Dunning describes. "She's been playing great in practice, and if Lizzie hadn't blocking so well, Erin would have played a lot more tonight."
Aside from Barboza, another strength that Stanford displayed tonight was its blocking. Historically known for having one of the strongest blocking squads in the Pac-10, the Cardinal have struggled mightily with their block in 2005. Heading into Friday night's match, Stanford ranked last in team blocking among all Pac-10 schools.
An explanation for this sharp decline in blocking numbers can be directly correlated to the injury Suiter suffered shortly before the beginning of the season. Just days before leaving for the season-opening AVCA/NACWAA Tournament in Omaha, Neb., Suiter severely sprained her ankle, keeping her out of action for approximately four weeks.
Suiter returned to the court for the first time this season at last week's Stanford Invitational, but only played sparingly in two matches. Against USC, she not only started the match, but the 6'2" quick hitter showed no signs of the injury, racking up a match-leading eight blocks on the night. Even when she was not blocking the ball straight down, she still was an integral part in Stanford's frontcourt defense, touching balls or redirecting attacks. Her presence in the line-up might suggest that the Cardinal's anemic blocking days are over, as they put up 11 team blocks.
While most athletes would find their first full match back against a national powerhouse to be a bit unnerving, Suiter was surprisingly calm as she took to the court Friday night.
"Actually, I wasn't as nervous as I expected, just because we've been practicing here, with scrimmaging and being in this situation before," Suiter says. "It wasn't as nerve racking as before. I was just out there with the people I'm used to."
Although much of the attention throughout the match centered around the sizzling power of Barboza and the defensive prowess of Suiter, another storyline emerged for Stanford tonight. The floor defense of the Cardinal, once thought of as a weakness in recent years, proved to be another area that was used to their advantage. In Game One alone, the home team accumulated an outstanding 32 digs, and Dunning credits his back row players for keeping Stanford afloat. The home team ended up outdigging the visitors, 62-51. Leading the charge in the back was Richards with 16 digs, followed by Schultz (14), Barboza (11), and senior Katie Goldhahn (10).
In this day and age, a sweep over USC is always cause for celebration, but Stanford knows that it isn't in the clear just yet. Saturday night, No. 14 UCLA invades The Farm for a 7:00 P.M. (Pacific) match. After losing to California for the first time in school history Friday night, the Bruins will attempt to take their frustrations out on the Cardinal. With the intense rivalry and legendary history between these two schools, Stanford will not take UCLA lightly.
"I think they are going to be as scrappy as usual, and during long rallies, we just have to keep pushing through," Suiter opines. "They are a good team and I think we should be prepared for them."
"UCLA is always a tough team and we're going to have to go back, refocus and get ready to play tomorrow," Barboza echoes.
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