Oct. 25, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. -
Stanford women’s volleyball coach John Dunning was clear. Before the season began, he made it known that this year’s goal was to win an NCAA title, something the school hasn’t achieved since 2004.
Dunning didn’t want his players to shy away from the national spotlight or tense up at the thought of running the table. By putting it out there, he figured it would help motivate his group every day in practice and keep them focused.
So far, so good.
“Coach has always told us that a lot of teams are afraid to talk about looking for a championship because it makes them nervous,” said freshman outside hitter Jordan Burgess. “But we talk about it all the time. That’s our goal and we’re working toward it every time we step in the gym.”
After beating Arizona at home on Wednesday night, the Cardinal ran its winning streak to 17 consecutive matches. Stanford, which has won six national titles, is 19-2 overall and 11-0 in Pac-12 Conference play.
The Cardinal began the week ranked No. 2 behind perennial power Penn State, but ranks No. 1 in RPI, meaning it has played the toughest schedule. Stanford already has faced seven Top 20 opponents, knocking off five of them.
This squad is resilient. Prior to Wednesday’s win, four of the last six matches went five games, with the Cardinal outlasting No. 2 Oregon, No. 5 Washington, No. 6 USC and No. 7 UCLA. Overall, Stanford is 4-1 in five-set matches compared to a 1-3 mark in 2011.
“Our team motto is, ‘The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender,’ and we live by it out on the court,’’ senior setter Karissa Cook said. “We know that we put in the work every day in the gym, so when it comes to crunch time, we don’t roll over.”
Freshman setter Madi Bugg admitted success is contagious.
“Winning makes you want to win more,” she said. “It’s a good feeling and you want to keep going. Losing is definitely not fun. I think all of us know how much better is feels to win than lose. That’s like a constant motivator.”
Officially, the 15-player Stanford roster includes eight underclassmen, headed by the top freshman class in the country: Burgess, Bugg, middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, outside hitter Brittany Howard, and middle blocker Megan McGehee. Four generally start, along with junior middle blocker Carly Wopat, and a choice of several others, including sophomore outside hitter Morgan Boukather and junior outside hitter Rachel Williams. It all helps make the Cardinal one of the youngest teams in the country. Not that the rookies feel like first-year players.
“Coming in for preseason, I don’t think we were ever treated like freshmen,” said Bugg. “Nobody expected us to play like freshmen. And we all are extremely competitive.”
Added Burgess, “I don’t think any of us ever really felt like we were freshmen in the sense that you back down. We have completely forgotten about age. We have a role to fill and a lot of expectations.”
Make no mistake, this is a close-knit team. The players spend most of their time together in and out of the gym, and know how to enjoy themselves.
“We have a lot of dancers – not all good,” said Bugg. “Everyone on the team is really easy to talk to. Off the court, goofy things happen all the time. On the court, we play our best when we’re focused and dialed in.”
“In the locker room, it’s really silly sometimes because we have some big personalities on our team,” she said. “On the court, I’d say we’re just intense and fierce. We’re really working on keeping that intensity level every time we step on the court. And we’re getting better at it.”
Cook and Wopat provide leadership and sanity for their young teammates.
“The personality of this team is definitely true to the Stanford mentality – we like to work hard, but we are all a little weird and we like to have fun,” said Cook. “The thing that makes this team click is that we all think winning is the most fun thing of all.”
Williams and Wopat are returning All-Americans, but this isn’t a team of stars. Everyone contributes.
“I think we have a lot of talent,” said Bugg. “I think our offense is pretty spread out, which is unusual. Typically, you have one or two go-to hitters. I trust every one of our hitters to get the game-winning kill. And I think our defense is super scrappy. We’re just an all-around balanced team and we have good depth.”
In 2008, Stanford won 16 consecutive matches, only to lose to Penn State in the NCAA title game. Counting Friday night’s home contest against Arizona State, nine conference matches remain, including four at Maples Pavilion.
There is plenty of unfinished business left as the Cardinal shoots for its 15th Pac-12 crown. First off is dethroning defending conference champion UCLA, which ended Penn State’s run of four straight NCAA championships last year.
If nothing else, Stanford knows it can play with the best. Its’ last loss came at Penn State on August 31, when the Cardinal lost, 25-13, 25-27, 25-23, 23-25, 15-13. “In a program with such a rich legacy, the expectations are always high,” Cook said. “We want a national championship.”
-- Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics
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Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his whole life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 35 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the golf beat writer for the Examiner, as well as national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, and contributing editor to Golf Digest. He has been the editor of tigerwoods.com since 1997.