The 2005 season was shaping up to be quite the banner year for the Stanford women's volleyball team. Ranked #5 in the nation and only two games behind #2 Washington in the Pac-10 standings, Stanford was primed and ready to make yet another run to the Final Four and defend the national championship crown it captured just one year ago. However, when outside hitter Cynthia Barboza, the leading attacker in the Pac-10, suffered a season-ending knee injury four weeks ago, fans and critics alike wondered if there would be enough firepower left in the Cardinal reserves to fuel a trip to San Antonio, the site for this year's Final Four. To make matters worse for head coach John Dunning, his star playmaker, Bryn Kehoe, broke her right hand in practice just days after Barboza went down.
With Barboza gone for the year and Kehoe out for an indefinite period of time, many questioned if Stanford's smooth offense would still be able to run in an effective manner and if the remaining cast of characters on the squad could power the Cardinal through the rest of their demanding Pac-10 schedule. Junior Kristin Richards even noted that the team questioned their position among the nation's elite at one point, given the depleted nature of the starting line-up.
Last Friday's contest with #6 Arizona provided Stanford (22-5, 11-4 Pac-10) with a gauge of its own talent level, and suffice to say, it looks like Dunning's troops might find a way to San Antonio after all. With a starting group that had been together for only two weeks, the Cardinal went toe-to-toe with the Wildcats and had three chances to put the match away. While victory was elusive on The Farm that night, confidence remains high in the Stanford locker room, which is a key ingredient for any deep postseason run.
"I think the team was pretty bummed out after [the Arizona] match. We could have and should have won it," Richards maintains. "Going into the match, we weren't sure how good we were without Cynthia and Bryn. But, we came out of that match with our heads held high because we did compete and give Arizona a really good match. In that respect, confidence is high."
After the extent of damage to Barboza's knee was determined, Dunning stressed that it would take a total team effort to overcome such adversity, and that concept has become even more important with the absence of Kehoe. Several players have had to raise their game to the next level to keep Stanford competitive in the Pac-10, and if there's ever a silver lining to when the injury bug strikes, it's that others on the roster will be presented an opportunity to prove that they can handle the pressures and responsibilities out on the court.
"If you are lucky when injuries occur, other people will step up more than they thought they had to," reveals Dunning. "Kristin has done that. We have to set her a lot and she knows it. She's delivering, and it's the best she's ever played. I think it's great that Katie [Goldhahn] stepped back into the setting role and has done as good of a job as she has."
Since Barboza's injury, Richards has been the main offensive weapon for the Cardinal, taking sets from all areas of the court to provide her team with a reliable point scorer. Despite the opposition's best efforts, the 6'0" outside hitter has been able to put down 6.23 kills per game at an impressive .342 clip, an upgrade from her season averages of 4.57 kills per game and .284 hitting percentage. She produced double-digit kills in all six matches, including a career-high 31 kills in Stanford's 3-1 road victory over Washington State.
The explanation behind Richards' impressive play the past few weeks is simple in her mind.
"I realize that I can't have bad games anymore," Richards answers honestly. "When Cynthia was healthy, if I wasn't completely on, most likely she would be and so it would even out. However, with all the team has gone through, I feel like I have to be as good as I can be at every moment."
Richards feels comfortable as Stanford's go-to hitter, and rather than succumb to the pressure and nerves that comes with such responsibility, the Orem, Utah native has embraced her new role with maturity.
"Whether the opponents know the ball is going to me or not, I still want to swing. I'm ok with it – I just have to remember to make smart decisions when I'm hitting," comments Richards.
Filling the shoes of Kehoe hasn't been an easy task for Goldhahn, but having such a determined and focused hitter like Richards certainly doesn't hurt. The past two seasons, the 5'11" senior served as a defensive specialist for the Cardinal, but originally came to The Farm as a highly-touted setter out of Lodi, Calif. A part-time starter as a freshman and sophomore at the setter spot, that previous experience has helped Goldhahn with the transition back to her normal position. In the four matches since Kehoe's injury, Goldhahn is averaging 13.60 assists and propelled the team to a .280 hitting percentage.
Once Goldhahn discovered that Kehoe's hand had been broken, she was ready to take over the reigns from her injured teammate despite her rustiness. With absolutely no fear in her eyes, she informed Dunning that she was willing and able to go at a moment's notice.
"Setting is in her blood. It's the only thing she's done. She's basically a setter who is playing another role for us because she wants to," notes the fifth-year Cardinal head coach. "She has set so many times before that jumping back on the saddle was very easy for her."
Aside from the contributions of Richards and Goldhahn, Dunning also made mention of sophomore Franci Girard, who is playing her third position this season. Starting off the year in the middle with freshman Foluke Akinradewo, Girard has been in and out of the starting line-up, battling Liz Suiter and Erin Waller for the M2 position and Nji Nnamani on the right side. When Barboza suffered her knee injury, Girard slid over to the outside hitter spot and has done an admirable job taking swings from the left side. While not entirely comfortable attacking with a high ball to the antenna, Girard is still able to produce kills, effectively taking some pressure of Richards.
With Washington's 3-0 victory over Oregon State last night, the Pac-10 Championship race is over; however, Stanford is looking to finish the rest of its conference schedule out on a positive note to gain momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament, beginning with Friday's match-up with #13 California in the annual Big Game. For Dunning, the preparation isn't just about wins and losses – what is more important to him leading up to the postseason is the overall improvement of his team. It is a notion that his team has bought into, and the goal of improvement has kept them motivated and positive, a difficult task considering all the obstacles they have recently faced.
"The team that improves the most until the last day of the year is the team that has the chance to win [the national championship] the most," Dunning opines. "No matter if we have all of our players or not, if we improve and improve, take a step back against Arizona, then work hard again in the gym this week, then we're still going some place."
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