In an instant, the dream season Cynthia Barboza was enjoying at Stanford turned into a nightmare. The freshman outside hitter, who was a leading candidate for National Freshman of the Year, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) last Friday night during an important Pac-10 match against California. On the first point of the third game, the 2005 Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year came down awkwardly after an attack, promptly tearing the ACL in her left knee and effectively ending her first-year campaign.
As the leading offensive option for the Cardinal and one of the top attackers in the Pac-10, Barboza's absence will be felt the most up at the net, where her hard-hitting attacks have produced 4.57 kills per game. However, her game extends beyond to just how many kills she collects during a match – her presence will also be missed in the back row, where she played a vital role in the Cardinal's three-man passing rotation. With nine regular season matches remaining and national title aspirations still on the horizon, the big question on everyone's mind is, what now?
If head coach John Dunning had a simple answer, he would disclose it immediately. Unfortunately, finding a replacement for Barboza is a situation where there is no simple solution in the short term. It is hard enough losing three great senior leaders in Ogonna Nnamani, Jen Hucke and Leahi Hall, while integrating five new faces to the squad this season, but losing Barboza so late into the year only makes things more difficult for the Cardinal to reform its identity in time to make a late push towards the Final Four and beyond.
"What happened to us is hard because we spent two and a half months finding who we were, and now, we're different," Dunning describes. "We have to figure out what to do next. This week, we spent a few days trying to find that out. It might take us awhile to find out exactly who we are."
Junior outside hitter Kristin Richards is Stanford's only true all-around player remaining, meaning that it will take a true team effort to fill in the void left by Barboza. In the front row, a number of players auditioned for a starting spot on the left side this week, including juniors Nji Nnamani and Jennifer Wilson, sophomore Franci Girard, and freshman Erin Waller. Based on her previous experiences, Nnamani would appear to have the slight edge over her competition, though most of her time has been spent on the right side. However, she is averaging 2.52 kills per game in 48 games this season, and the combination of athleticism and power would make her a viable option on the outside. Barboza's shot selection, veteran savvy and hard hitting will be difficult to replace, but Dunning was impressed with how well all the candidates were able to compete for an opportunity for more playing time.
"What we decided to do was to take a couple of people who hadn't been on the court as much and give them a chance on the left side. So we had five people hitting on the left side this week, trying to come up with the best way to do it and where to start," says Stanford's fifth-year head coach. "We had a really good, hard week of practice, which is great. It is easy to get upset and not push on, but our team did a great job this week."
Freshman Alex Fisher would have been a prime contender to step into Barboza's starting slot, but Dunning confirmed on Wednesday that the local star out of Menlo High School would be redshirting this season. The 6-2 outside hitter endured a shoulder surgery in early February and was still recuperating when Stanford opened up camp in August. Rather than rush her recovery, Dunning wants to make sure she is fully recovered before she starts swinging away at balls.
"She's for sure taking a redshirt," Dunning declares. "We are trying to limit what she does so she has a good chance at playing for four years. We are not going to waste a whole year in trying to get her on the court now."
Although Dunning made no specific mention of a particular replacement for Barboza in the back row, he did point out that serving specialist Jessica Fishburn's role would change in the coming weeks. A highly touted ball control specialist, Fishburn was slated to take over the libero position after Courtney Schultz graduates this season, but it appears that the freshman will have a chance to showcase her back row abilities earlier than planned.
"Jess is a really good back row player. She's a very good passer, very good defensive player," says Dunning. "She just knows a lot about volleyball and has a good feel for the game. She's definitely going to play halftime now, and I think she'll do great."
In addition to new players on the court, the remaining members of the starting line-up will have to step up their game. Sophomore setter Bryn Kehoe needs to be more deceptive with her sets in an attempt to better her hitter's opportunities for kills. Middle blocker Lizzie Suiter must do what she does best, and that is to block balls, making it more difficult for opposing teams to score points. Quick hitter Foluke Akinradewo and Richards cannot afford to have off-nights on offense anymore, especially since they are Stanford's next leading attackers at 4.09 and 4.06 kills per game, respectively.
"I know I'm going to have to step up my game even more because Cynthia pulled a lot of weight for our team," Richards confesses. "Not having her out there is different in a lot of ways – her offense, passing, blocking… There are a lot of things we have to compensate for."
Just as important as determining who will start at the L2 position is the overall mental state of the team. Watching a friend and teammate succumb to an injury is difficult enough, but having to finish out a match can only exacerbate the situation. This was the scenario the Cardinal found themselves in last Friday and somehow, they were able to pull off a gritty 30-26, 30-20, 28-30, and 32-30 victory over the Golden Bears.
"In my volleyball career, that was the toughest thing I've ever had to do. I wanted to help Cynthia and be there for her, but we had a match to finish," Richards shares. "Our team came up with some huge plays, and I think Cynthia fired that up. We wanted to win for her. I thought it was a very courageous effort by our team."
Barboza finished the rest of the match on the sidelines, and while she was incapable of helping the team out on the court, she did her part from the bench, cheering them on to victory. As difficult as a season-ending injury is to deal with, Richards believes that Barboza is handling the situation like a true champion. The rehabilitation process begins on November 3, when Dr. Michael Dillingham will surgically repair the torn ligament.
"Cynthia, all things considered, is doing really well. I don't know if I would be doing as put-together if I were in her position. I'm really proud of ,her and she's being really brave," remarks Richards.
A few days have passed since the incident, and the Cardinal have had some time to digest the impact of Barboza's injury and its lasting effects. The loss of its freshman phenom will undoubtedly influence Stanford's performance in certain areas on the court, but Richards confides that her teammates still believe in their abilities to reach the Final Four. Their aim to repeat as national champions has not changed, despite not having the services of Barboza for the remainder of the year. The challenge for Dunning's troops now is to maintain a level of focus that will enable them to achieve their goals by years end.
"I think the hardest part is we have to keep focusing on our next match or opponent. It is so hard," Richards says of Stanford's current state of mind. "Everyone is so split – they are so sorry that [her injury] happened, but we have to keep being determined to get better."
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