The Stanford Women's Volleyball team has played four games before its home opener today vs. St. Mary's. As a team, Stanford is 4-0 and ranked #2 nationally. The team has yet to be seriously challenged despite all four opponents being nationally ranked, the Cardinal dropping only a single game to #9 Minnesota. The serving and team defense has been outstanding, the offense merely excellent, in wearing down the opposition. Serve receive needs to improve, and team blocking was surprisingly weak, with Stanford outblocked handily by both Ohio and Minnesota.
Despite the addition of several new players, this Stanford team already appears very calm, collected, and confident in its play. Head coach John Dunning will no doubt address the team's minor deficiencies, and Stanford should once again win the Pac-10 and find itself in the Final Four in Sacramento come December.
Here is a short review of what the Maples Pavilion faithful can expect from both veteran and new members of the #2-ranked Cardinal at this weekend's Stanford Invitational.
Alex Fisher finally was able to give the fans a glimpse of her promise as an outside hitter, making a solid appearance with a couple of flashy kills, in substitution for the Cardinal. Having Fisher, who lost both of her first two collegiate seasons to injury, available as a reliable substitute to spell Alix Klineman and Cynthia Barboza periodically over the course of the season will be an important team contribution.
Alix Klineman delivered as expected as the #1 high school recruit in the country. Klineman played at an extremely high level and was able to bring her high-altitude game to the collegiate level, regularly hitting over the block. The 6'4" frosh showed a nice ability to change speeds on her shots and was very smart in her shot selection. Coach Dunning and senior setter Bryn Kehoe showed a great deal of confidence in the freshman by relying on her for offense in every conceivable situation. Klineman continues to show improvement in her passing and played very credible back row defense, as evidenced by her14 digs vs. Minnesota. Stanford's newest outside hitter needs to work on her blocking, where she (and the rest of the team) is least effective at this juncture in the season. All in all, it was a spectacular collegiate debut by Klineman against nationally ranked opposition.
Bryn Kehoe worked hard all weekend chasing down far too many errant passes. She was able to make the most of what she was given to run the offense, as one would expect from the veteran senior. Kehoe was probably the most effective blocker all weekend, as well. She and the middle hitters were not quite in synch, and though inconsistent, this is certainly expected to improve as the season goes on.
Cassidy Lichtman performed solidly in her first appearances in a Stanford uniform. The US Junior National team member is amazingly steady and composed in all aspects of her game. The 6'1" freshman is not a flashy player, but she brings an assured and cerebral aspect to the team play. Lichtman was always on the spot defensively, and was a reliable hitter and passer that Dunning will be able to call on regularly in substitution during the season.
Cynthia Barboza, the tournament MVP, played her usual strong offensive game. However, she just didn't appear sharp, perhaps from the long summer with the U.S. National Team, or perhaps from too high expectations. Several out-of-character serve receive errors would suggest tired legs, or fatigue from the sweltering Williams Arena environment. The Stanford offense and defense relies heavily on the All-American junior, and Barboza will no doubt deliver for the Cardinal over the course of the season.
Erin Waller played strong at the starting opposite position. The junior was very effective hitting the slide and tandem attacks, making very perceptive reads of the block in timing her hits. Waller's net play was solid, and probably the most consistent blocker over the entire weekend. With blockers keying on Klineman and Barboza, this could be a breakout year offensively for Waller.
Foluke Akinradewo was often dominating offensively with several kills that brought audible gasps of astonishment from the crowd. Better team passing will bring more consistency to the middle attack, though despite her typically spectacular hitting percentage, Kehoe and Akinradewo did not appear to be totally in synch at this early stage of the season. The 6'3" junior's net play was symptomatic of the team's rather lackluster blocking performance in Minnesota, and she often appeared to be a half step slow getting to the outside to close the block. Akinradewo also spent a long summer training with Barboza on the U.S. National team, and she may have been tired or may have had difficulty with the conditions in the gym. With other middles not playing, Akinradewo and Franci Girard were required to play the entire tournament without substitution.
Franci Girard brought her lively game and high spirits to the middle hitter position, and the Brooklyn (N.Y.) senior played very well with several spectacular kills over the weekend. She was particularly outstanding with a career high 15 kills in the game vs. Minnesota. Girard still needs to bring more consistency to her game, particularly her blocking, but her veteran presence will be an asset to the team.
Gabi Ailes is the early season revelation for Stanford. The freshman was extraordinary in both the libero and defensive specialist positions, making several athletic and acrobatic digs and saves. Ailes appears to have adjusted easily to the faster speed of the collegiate game. This 5'7" athlete will definitely be a Maples Pavilion fan favorite in short order with her spirit and athleticism.
Jessica Fishburn was her usual steady and reliable self in the back row, where the junior alternated between libero and defensive specialist with Ailes. Fishburn averaged nearly 10 digs a match in Minnesota in anchoring Stanford's outstanding defensive efforts.
Joanna Evans made a short appearance vs. Ohio to close out the third game and effectively showed her ability to run the offense. The sophomore setter read the blockers well, mixed up the action and spread the ball to the hitters effectively, though noticeably not as strong or aggressive as Kehoe. Evans will be a reliable backup for Coach Dunning, and she should be well prepared to take over the setting duties in 2008 after Kehoe graduates later this year.
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