Behind the Scenes: WVB's Cassidy Lichtman

This week, members of the Stanford women's volleyball team come out of a tough academic challenge—finals week—and walk right into an equally tough sports challenge—the NCAA Western Regionals.

Even though fourth-seeded Stanford is the highest seed in the regional and benefits from playing on its home court, this weekend's matches will test the mettle of a team that won the Pac-10 and currently stands with a 23-7 record.

If the Cardinal is to advance to the Final Four in Tampa, its veteran players will have to lead the way. One of the most experienced is Cassidy Lichtman, who on Thursday was named to the 14-member All-Pacific Region Team, along with teammates Alix Klineman and Janet Okogbaa, as selected by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.

I talked with Cassidy after practice Thursday find out how the team is preparing for the match against Michigan on Friday. First, I asked if this regional competition is getting to be old hat. She was in the Final Four in each of her freshman and sophomore years. "Oh no," she was quick to reply, "It is so exciting. These matches are so much more intense than those in the regular season. It's a special time."

What do you remember about your first two years? "Well, the first Final Four was something completely new, very different. But our teams tend to handle those pressure situations pretty well. Because our older players were so experienced, it was less overwhelming than it might have been. We lost (to Penn State) but it was a great experience.

"Last year's final match (against Penn State again) is pretty much a blur at this point, but I do remember that we played really well. There were some things that we could have done better, but we just lost to a great team.

"Now, we're in a really tough regional. It's going to take a big effort to get back to the Final Four. To get ready for Michigan, each of us has to watch film of their team, and then send a scouting report to the coaches. Coach Dunning compiles all these reports and then comes back to us with a thick packet of information for us to use in preparing for the match."

What do you know about Michigan? "Right now, not much. But we'll know a lot more on Friday. They do have a couple of good outside hitters, including a left-hander. They also have a very good, aggressive setter who gets herself really involved in the offense."

So what does Stanford have to do on Friday? "As always, a lot of it has to do with serving and passing. We work on that all the time. We have to serve well enough to disrupt their offensive system and get them out of rhythm, so they can't run as fast an offense as they'd like. And then when the ball is on our side of the net, we have to pass really well so our offense will run smoothly.

"The other thing is that we are going to try and come out strong in the beginning and get a fast start, so we don't get ourselves in a come-from-behind situation, like we have a few times this year."

What do you have to do, personally? "I just want to be consistent and carry an offensive load."

With that settled, we went back to the beginning. Were you a volleyball player right from the start? "Oh, yes, my mother played volleyball at the University of Washington, and when I was a child, we lived in Texas, and Mom was coaching at the club level, so my brother and I would go to the gym with her and she would throw us a volleyball and say ‘Here, play with this for awhile I go to practice.' So I've been handling a volleyball for a long time."

After a very successful tenure at Francis Parker School in San Diego—four-year letter winner in volleyball and three-year letter winner in softball—Cassidy started to look at colleges. "I looked at Stanford, Washington, and Minnesota."

Minnesota? "They were coming off a really strong run in the NCAAs and I liked the program. But I'm a Southern California girl, and it's awfully cold in Minnesota. After I submitted a letter of inquiry to Stanford, the coaches came to see me play, and we talked back and forth until they decided they wanted me, and I decided I wanted Stanford."

After graduating from high school, Cassidy played for the Junior National Team that participated in the 2007 Under-20 Championship in Thailand. Did that help your game? "Yeah, I think it did, especially in getting accustomed to the speed of play, so I was ready when I got here at Stanford in Fall of 2007.

Is the college game really that much faster? "Oh my, yes. The players serve harder, they kill harder, they play tougher, and the offenses are much quicker than anything you find at the high school or club level. Because the game is coming at you at such a faster pace, you have to focus on being in the right place when the ball comes over the net. And everyone is so much taller. All the really good college teams have a lot of height."

One of the remarkable improvements in Cassidy's game over the last few years has been her development from a defensive player and occasional hitter to a true triple-threat player. Triple doubles of at least 10 kills, 10 assists, and 10 digs have become almost routine. How did that happen? "Well, I've always gone between positions a little bit. In high school, I was only a hitter. Then at the club level, I hit and then sometimes I set. As a freshman here, I was a sometimes hitter and I played a lot of defense. In my sophomore year, the coaches wanted me to switch to setter. So I worked really hard at that. Then we needed another outside hitter, so I worked on that. Now, I can fit into whatever rotation gives us the best hitters, the best blockers and the best passers on the floor."

But isn't Karissa Cook the main setter? "Yes, she is. Out of our six rotations, she sets four of them, and I set two. That's pretty much set in our offense."

Finally, I asked Cassidy to help us understand some of the finer points of the game. First, how does the ebb and flow of a game change so fast? The best example is the last Cal match, when Stanford lost the first two games and was ready to lose the third, but somehow turned everything around and won the match, 3-2. How does that happen? "You know, we've done that a couple of times this year. And it's hard to explain. A lot of it is just momentum. Against Cal, we got off to a good start in the first game, and then they got on a run, we just lost our momentum, and Cal took over the match. They were on a roll, playing with a lot of confidence, and we couldn't stop them. We couldn't do anything right. Finally, we were down something like 22-17 in the third game and coach called a time out. He got us together and said basically, ‘Look, you know you want to win this match. Let's fight for this. Let's just show them what we can do.' And we said among ourselves ‘We've been here before. We know what has to be done. Now, let's just make it happen.' We just never stopped fighting, and managed to outscore Cal 5-1 to get back in the game, and then just pushed ourselves to the win.

"Once we had the momentum back, we never let go of it. The fourth game was close, but we knew we were back in control. We won it, and then we were so charged up, the fifth game was a blowout."

Who are your leaders on the court? "I think Alix (Klineman), Gabi (Ailes) and I lead in different ways. Gabi has the most vocal energy, she's the one who cheers the loudest when we make a good play. I talk a lot to my teammates during the play, about positions and passing. Alix is our go-to player on offense, so she leads with her play. We each have a niche that we fill."

Another technical point: When Stanford is receiving, do we have a play set before the ball is served? "Yes. Our coaches call the play in to our setter. We have about five set plays. Sometimes, they'll call for a particular hitter. But most of the time, we make the decision as the play develops."

Let's say Alix is the designated hitter on a play. But the other team serves to her so she is forced to dig out the ball, and is out of position. Now what do you do? "Well, Alix has to do what she can to get herself into position for the kill. But if she's on the floor after the dig, that isn't going to happen. So then we have to improvise. And that's where our experience comes in. We have a lot of players who know what to do when we get into a bit of trouble."

Blocks seem to be such an important part of the game—are they planned in advance? "They sometimes are. But a lot of the time, we show a block to take away an area of the court. If the opposing hitter doesn't want to try and hit through our block, she has to hit away from us, and Gabi is there waiting for the ball. If she can dig that kill, we're back on offense. So often, the blockers are funneling the ball to where we want it to go."

One of the things that bothers casual fans the most is service errors. You practice a hundred serves a day, how can you make an error? "Well, sometimes it's a lack of focus. But most of the time, it's an aggressive service error. We are just trying to make a really good serve to disrupt the other team's offensive set and slow down their offense, and we mishit the ball or just come up a little short."

That's enough technical stuff. What lies ahead? "Well, I'm through with finals. But of course, I can't go home. And if we win the Regional, we just keep on going right down to Tampa. So there's no time off for us right now."

Included in this year's honors for Cassidy was a place on the Pac-10 All Academic Second Team. What lies ahead after volleyball? "I'm a political science major and I really want to do something with foreign policy."

But that's down the road. Right now, we all wish that Cassidy doesn't get to think about Afghanistan—or even go home to Poway, Calif.—until after the Final Four is over on December 19.

About the author: Bob Iacopi '56 spent his entire working career in the book business as a writer, editor, and publisher. He served as a reporter for the now defunct Palo Alto Times and SF News-Call-Bulletin, has written for the Fast Break Club website, and lives in San Jose.

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