Each year the Stanford women’s volleyball program has one ultimate goal of winning a national championship. This year is no different as the 2013 Cardinal, ranked No. 3 entering the season, returns all of its starters from last year’s squad which appeared in its 32nd consecutive NCAA Tournament, reaching the Regional Finals for the eighth time under head coach John Dunning. Over the years, Stanford has accumulated more NCAA titles (6), won more NCAA Tournament matches (101), made more Final Four appearances (18), and been in the national championship match more times (14) than any other program in the nation.
“It has been really fun to be around this team this year,” said Dunning, who is in his 13th season at the helm of the program. “They are really determined as a group to work hard and see just how good we can be this year. From a coaching point of view, that is really exciting.”
Stanford has captured the Pac-12 title in six of the past seven seasons and has its sights set on another conference championship in 2013. The program’s 32-year run in the NCAA Tournament is matched by only one other school in the nation and the Cardinal is working hard to be one of the four teams playing in Seattle this December.
In 2012, Dunning nabbed his fourth Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors after the team finished 19-1 in conference matches (30-4 overall). He has coached in more NCAA championship matches than anyone in the history of the sport and now holds a career record of 778-163 (.827) in 28 seasons as a head coach.
The Cardinal returns all of its starters from last year’s squad, including six upperclassmen that will be depended on for leadership and guidance throughout the season. The senior class includes two-time All-American Carly Wopat, 2011 All-American Rachel Williams and defensive specialist Mary Ellen Luck. The trio has helped produce 79 wins and two conference titles over the past three seasons. Juniors Lydia Bai, Morgan Boukather and Kyle Gilbert will also have a heightened leadership presence on the squad this year. Gilbert, Stanford’s starting libero last year, will be looked to once again to guide the defense this season.
“Leadership is going to be one of the things that will really develop for our team throughout the season,” said Dunning. “We had four really mature seniors graduate last year, so you don’t really know what your team is going to be like in terms of leadership and maturity until you go through part of your season. I’m excited for this group. I think we have a lot of people who are going to step up into those roles and help our team in any way possible.”
Also among the returning letterwinners are sophomores Inky Ajanaku, Madi Bugg, Jordan Burgess, Brittany Howard and Megan McGehee, who together made up the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation entering last season. Ajanaku finished 2012 as an honorable mention AVCA All-American. She was joined on the All-Pac-12 Team by Burgess and Howard. The trio, along with Bugg, was also named to the All-Pac-12 Freshman Team.
“We were definitely lucky to have five players that good come into our program last season,” stated Dunning. “They played a major role on our team during a very successful season. I don’t think this group is satisfied with how last year ended and they have worked very hard since January to improve. They are very motivated and are determined to show that we can be a better team. They are not only talented, but they also help our team have a very good spirit about it and have fun while striving to reach our goals.”
The Cardinal welcome four freshmen to The Farm this season, three of which have family ties to Stanford. Joining the squad and providing depth at several positions are setter Kelsey Humphreys (Newport Beach, Calif.), outside hitter Grace Kennedy (Newport Beach, Calif.), middle blocker Merete Lutz (Houston, Texas) and outside hitter Ivana Vanjak (Bad Soden, Germany). Humphreys’ mother, formerly Wendy Rush, was a four-time All-America setter for the Cardinal from 1984-87 and has been inducted in the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame, while her father, Brad, was a member of the Stanford football team during the same years. Lutz’s parents both graduated from Stanford in 1984, while her brother is a member of the Cardinal rowing team. Kennedy also comes from a long lineage of Cardinal as both of her parents and her older sister, Victoria, graduated from Stanford, while her older brother, Raymond (George) is a junior this year. Kennedy’s father, Raymond, was a member of the men’s swimming team, while her sister won two NCAA Championships with the women’s water polo team (2011 & 2012).
“Again, we have a large freshman class, and coupled with the five sophomores, nine of our 15 players are underclassmen,” explained Dunning. “The four freshmen have a lot of volleyball experience. I am really impressed so far with how well they are listening and how hard they are trying to do things that are different from what they are used to. They are very open and hardworking, and so far they have had a very positive effect on our team.”
The Cardinal faces yet another challenging schedule in 2013. Stanford begins the season at UC Santa Barbara- a hometown stop for Wopat. Stanford’s first match in Maples Pavilion will be on Wednesday, Sept. 4 against Pacific, a match which will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks. The Cardinal will then pack its bags as it plays in the Nike Volleyball Big Four Classic in Austin, Texas, including dates with preseason No. 9 Florida and defending national champion and preseason No. 1 Texas. Stanford will then have a unique experience competing in the Service Academy Challenge, hosted by Air Force and played inside the Pentagon. After two more non-conference match-ups, the Cardinal will begin the defense of its Pac-12 title at rival California on Wednesday, Sept. 25. In total, Stanford will play 10 matches against teams ranked in the preseason top 25.
“Every year we make our schedule in order to prepare for our conference,” said Dunning. “You are preparing for a conference in which every weekend you are playing against two good teams. Sometimes it is two teams in the top 10, so the way we prepare for that is to find a variety of competition during the preseason, especially on the road. I think we have done that again with our schedule this season.”