Stanford's quest for a seventh national championship got off to a rough start on the road. Can the #7 ranked Cardinal return to the promised land? The Stanford Invitational is underway at Maples and local fans got their first glimpse at this season's team as they defeated New Mexico State in three sets.
After consecutive runner-up finishes at the last two NCAA Championships, senior All-Americans Cynthia Barboza and Foluke Akinradewo know they have one last crack at that elusive championship trophy. Boasting a veteran team made up of five seniors, who made up PrepVolleyball.com's top-rated recruiting class of 2005, the 2008 Stanford women's volleyball team certainly has the talent and experience to bring back the trophy to the farm. To do so, however, they will have to overcome the graduation of one of the program's all-time great setters in Bryn Kehoe, who led the team to their last championship in 2004 as a freshman.
Taking over the setting duties from Kehoe are junior Joanna Evans and sophomore Cassidy Lichtman. Apparently, the battle for the main setter position was so close that coach John Dunning has decided to use both and employ what is known as a 6-2 offense. In the more common 5-1 offense, the setter plays all 6 rotations and has 5 hitters at her disposal. With a 6 hitter, 2 setter scheme, setters are only utilized in the back row, so when it is time for them to rotate to the front row, they will be replaced by a hitter, and a second setter will come in to set in the back row. In Lichtman's case, she also happens to be a terrific player at the net, so she remains in the game as a hitter when she is in the front.
Switching from a 5-1 offense to a 6-2 usually takes some getting used to. Hitters will now have to adjust to two different setting styles, and setters have to adjust from setting three rotations, to sitting on the bench for the next three, or in Lichtman's case, hitting in the front row. Compounding this is a rule change for the 2008 season, which lowers the number of points in a set from 30 to 25. This makes it all the more important to get off to a good start as it is more difficult to mount a comeback if you dig yourself into a big hole early in the set.
Six matches into the 2008 season, Stanford has already lost twice, matching their total number of losses in the entire regular season last year. They were swept by Nebraska in the season opener, then upset by Saint Louis 3-1 last weekend. Nestled between those losses were a 5-set victory against No. 3 Texas and sweeps of UCF, William & Mary, and No. 19 Illinois, so the team has shown glimpses of how it is capable of playing.
In Thursday night's home opener against New Mexico State in the Stanford Invitational, the Cardinal emerged victorious in three sets: 25-17, 25-16, 26-24. One of the highlights of the team was blocking, where they tallied a season high of 12 blocks, led by Akinradewo with 2 solo and 4 assisted, junior middle blocker Janet Okogbaa with 5 assisted, and Barboza with 1 solo and 3 assisted. Serving, however, left plenty of room for improvement, as the team accumulated a total of 11 errors and were not able to come away with a single ace. Gabi Ailes was a bright spot on the defensive end, hustling her way to 13 digs to lead the team.
We all know it's how you finish the season, not how you start it, that decides the NCAA champion. It will be exciting to watch Coach Dunning and staff work their magic and mold this year's team into championship contenders come December.
Update: The Stanford Invitational continued Friday night with Stanford taking on UC Santa Barbara, which had fallen to Santa Clara 4-1 in the opening match of the tournament on Thursday. It wouldn't get any easier for Santa Barbara as the less-than-hospitable host Cardinal came out blazing and swept the Gauchos 25-13, 25-17, 25-21. The Cardinal will play its final match of the tournament on Saturday as the team will take on local rival Santa Clara for the Stanford Invitational tournament title.
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