Aug. 15, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. -With a core group of veterans returning and the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation, the 2012 Stanford women's volleyball team has lofty expectations for the upcoming season. The ultimate goal remains the same - win a national championship. Over the years, Stanford has accumulated more NCAA titles, won more NCAA Tournament matches, made more Final Four appearances, and been in the national championship match more times than any other program in the nation.
"The right thing to do with this team is to set the expectations as high as possible," said head coach John Dunning. "We have expectations every year of striving to win the Pac-12 and the national championship. We want to keep our minds focused on improving throughout the season to see just how good of a team we are."
Stanford is looking to improve on its fourth-place Pac-12 finish last season. The program's 31-year run in the NCAA Tournament is matched by only one other school and the Cardinal would like to be one of the four teams playing in Louisville in December.
Stanford is under the guidance of 12th-year head coach John Dunning, a three-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year and recent AVCA Hall of Fame inductee. Dunning has coached in more NCAA championship matches than anyone in the history of the sport. Dunning, who is just one of eight active coaches to reach 700 career wins, now holds a career record of 748-159 in 26 seasons as a head coach.
Returning all but one starter from last season, Stanford will depend on its seven upperclassmen for leadership and guidance. The senior class, including Hannah Benjamin, Karissa Cook, Hayley Spelman and Jessica Walker, has produced 72 wins over the past three seasons. Cook was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention pick in 2011, while Benjamin, Spelman and Walker have all been recognized by the conference during their careers. Juniors Rachel Williams and Carly Wopat were both All-Pac-12 and honorable mention AVCA All-Americans a year ago. Defensive specialist Mary Ellen Luck saw plenty of court time as a sophomore, having played in all but two sets last season. However, the absence of Sam Wopat, Carly's twin, will be felt by each member of the team this season.
"I think the impact on the upperclassmen and what they learned last year during the season could be greater on them because they have been through more on the court and they have less time left," explained Dunning. "I think all of the returning players went through the same thing. They all went through not succeeding enough. They all went through not being able to handle the toughest moments, not having done it before. They all had their feet in the fire and they are tougher now because of it."
Also among the letterwinners returning are sophomores Lydia Bai, Morgan Boukather and Kyle Gilbert. Bai was a member of the Pac-12's All-Freshmen team in 2011. Gilbert played in every set last season as the libero or a defensive specialist, while Boukather gained valuable experience in the lineup as an outside hitter.
The five freshmen joining the squad this season will comprise one-third of the roster. Ranked No. 1 as a class by PrepVolleyball.com, middle blocker Inky Ajanaku (Tulsa, Okla.), setter Madi Bugg (Apex, N.C.), outside hitter Jordan Burgess (Fort Myers, Fla.), outside hitter Brittany Howard (Los Altos, Calif.) and middle blocker Megan McGehee(Lee's Summit, Mo.) will strengthen the team and provide depth in several areas.
"It's a very highly-ranked class and it should be," said Dunning. "They are five players that are all rated highly. They all have experience of being the person that their team leaned on in the past. They come in with a lot of experience already. If some right things happen, they can have a big impact on our team and that brings an excitement to our program."
The Cardinal faces yet another challenging schedule in 2012. Stanford begins the season at the Chevron Rainbow Wahine Invitational. The Cardinal will remain on the road for the third annual Nike Volleyball Big Four Classic, hosted this year by Penn State University. Stanford will face the Nittany Lions as well as the Florida Gators during the second weekend of play. Stanford's first match in Maples Pavilion will be an exhibition contest against Jiangsu, a team from China. The Cardinal will also host the Stanford Invitational before jumping into the 20-match Pac-12 slate. In total, Stanford will play 16 matches against teams coming off NCAA Tournament appearances.
"I think probably every team in the Pac-12 will be better than last year, so we have a lot to be prepared for.," said Dunning. "The only way I know how to get our team ready for that high level of play is to play as many matches like that in the preseason. We go to Hawaii to play in a tough tournament. This is the third year playing against Penn State, Florida and Texas in the Nike Big Four Classic. We are playing a team from China, and we know the level of play they will bring because we played teams like them last summer in China. We decided to play as tough a schedule as we could find again."
Five Things to Know about Stanford Women's Volleyball
Stanford returns two All-Americans to this year's squad - juniors Rachel Williams and Carly Wopat. Both were honorable mention selections by the AVCA last season, while Wopat was named a first team pick by Volleyball Magazine. The pair combined to produce 54 percent of the team's kills, 50 percent of the team's points and 75 percent of the team's blocks in 2011.
"They both did a great job last year, especially when you consider that they were probably in physical pain," said Dunning. "They are tough and they are gifted athletes. They have both worked hard to learn a lot in the past year. Both are coming off of surgery, and may have learned more because of it in the offseason. They were mindful of what they were watching and what they could do on the court. If they both return healthier this season, I think the sky is the limit for them. We are going to lean on them and I think they are ready for that."
TOP-RANKED FRESHMAN CLASS
Stanford's freshman class, consisting of Inky Ajanaku (Tulsa, Okla.), Madi Bugg (Apex, N.C.), Jordan Burgess (Fort Myers, Fla.), Brittany Howard (Los Altos, Calif.) and Megan McGehee(Lee's Summit, Mo.), has been ranked No. 1 overall in the country by PrepVolleyball.com. All five players were high school All-Americans and ranked among the Top 15 on PrepVolleyball's Senior Aces list.
"This is a very big class for us, it is rare for us to sign five student-athletes at one time," said Dunning. "They have been fun to watch over the past several years. They have a lot of experience, are very talented and have been well coached. They will make up one third of our team and will have a significant impact."
BY THE NUMBERS
The Stanford women's volleyball program has won more NCAA titles (6), won more NCAA Tournament matches (98), made more Final Four appearances (18), and been in the national championship match (14) more times than any other program in the nation. The Cardinal has captured 17 conference championships and produced 30 or more wins on 15 occasions. It is one of just two programs in the country to have appeared in all 31 NCAA Tournaments, having won all 31 of its first-round matches.
REMEMBERING Sam Wopat
In remembrance of teammate Sam Wopat, who passed away in March, the 2012 Stanford team will have her initials, "SW", embroidered onto their uniforms.
"It has and will continue to impact this team," said Dunning. "It is one of those things you don't get past, but you learn to move forward together and keep her memory with you. There is no question that Sam is going to be with this team this year. We are going to put her initials on our uniform as a tribute to her and as a way to bring her onto the court with us every time we play."
The launch of the Pac-12 television networks on August 15, 2012 marks the beginning of a new era for the Conference of Champions. Among the televised events will be 82 Pac-12 women's volleyball matches. Stanford will take part in 15 of those broadcasts, starting with an exhibition match against Jiangsu, a team from China, on Sept. 5. The Pac-12 Networks will consist of one national and six regional networks devoted solely to the Pac-12.
"All of the things that have developed in the Pac-12 over the last few years are really exciting," said Dunning. "When you add television on such a large scale, the impact and the changes it will have on your sport are hard to predict, but we all should be excited about this. It is going to change our game and impact the growth on our sport. All of the people who love volleyball are going to get to see 82 Pac-12 matches on television. They are going to be exposed to a very high level like they are all around the country."