Dec. 6, 2012
By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - When Stanford women's volleyball coach John Dunning landed five prized freshmen, he knew the dynamics of his program would change. The question was, how would his 10 returning players, especially his four seniors, react?
Thirty-two matches into the season, Dunning couldn't be more pleased. Not only has his second-ranked team (29-3) reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, his players have pushed and encouraged each other all year.
"Because of what the seniors and 10 returning players have done, the freshmen have fit in the way we want our team to be," said Dunning. "And that's not common for it to work out and everybody in the program would go, `I like being there.' There's not any drama going on and that's amazing."
Dunning has used 13 different starting lineups.
"I've been okay with it because we've been so successful and so supportive of each other," said senior setter Karissa Cook of Santa Cruz. "I'm definitely not the only one who has had their role changed three, four or five times in one season.
Whatever is best for the team. I don't care who the last person on the court is. If we're all dog-piling together and we've won the national championship, it doesn't matter what six are out there."
The other seniors are defensive specialist Hannah Benjamin of San Diego; middle blocker Jessica Walker of Houston; and outside hitter Hayley Spelman of Las Vegas.
The second-seeded Cardinal will continue its quest for a seventh national title on Friday when it plays 15th-seeded Iowa State (22-7) in the Berkeley Regional. A victory would advance Stanford to a fourth-round match against Michigan (25-11) or Michigan State (25-9) on Saturday, with a Final Four berth at stake.
"One of our goals is to be a team that improves every week of the season," said Dunning. "That you don't burn out or get to the end and have nothing left. They really are trying to get better every week."
Part of that is knowing they must work hard to earn playing time. The other is understanding they have a chance to win it all.
"Everyone who has come this far and made it to Stanford has been a starter on every other team they've ever played on," Cook said. "They have probably been the leader and central figure of every other team they've EVER played on up until now. So I think that roles shifted for everybody coming in, coming back, and I think they've continued to shift. I think the flexibility that everyone has been open to has really made a big difference."
As Dunning pointed out, there has been no gossip or moping on the court. Even the seniors who have seen their minutes reduced, have stayed positive and supportive.
"Amazingly accountable," he said. "And they are in hard positions. We have multiple people on our team who played major roles on our team last year, who aren't this year. But they are playing major roles this year even though their playing role on the court might be significantly different. That's something to be proud of as a person."
From Day One, the returning players put the team ahead of themselves.
"I think that's a goal is for everyone to check their egos at the beginning of the season," said Cook. "I think that's something we've been really good at during the four years I've been here. I think that's yielded success for us because we've also shown it doesn't matter who is on the court."
Although the returning players knew the freshmen would push for playing time, that didn't prevent them from helping them ease into college life and serve as sounding boards.
"With everything this team has been through, we realize that team relationships are more important than anything else," Cook said. "We all remembered how being a student-athlete at Stanford is a whole new monster - it's a load on a plate and hard to deal with if you're on your own. The level of empathy within the team that we've been able to carry over throughout this year has been really good for them, and they've been able to give so much back in terms of energy, excitement and enthusiasm about being able to take on these new challenges."
Dunning has nothing but admiration for his upperclassman.
"Everybody in the group knew that the freshmen had to mature on the court if they were going to play and had to be able to deal with things," he said. "The seniors said, `This is the way we're gonna do it. I'm going to act that way every day.' The hard part about leadership is you can't take days off. You have to be the example if you're a leader, otherwise it will fall apart eventually."
Cook said players can't help thinking about winning another national championship. At the same time, they have had so much fun playing together, the journey has been just as important.
"I don't think you can deny looking ahead; it's so exciting," she said. "We haven't shied away from it, mostly because I think we're okay with that pressure. Every match we've played we've had such a good time. The Stanford volleyball family is always a family, which is so cool. It's been a joy to be part of."