Back in January, shortly after Stanford’s women’s volleyball team was eliminated by Penn State in the NCAA Tournament, then-sophomore Inky Ajanaku told me, “This loss is going to burn in our minds until December.”
When I asked her last week whether the team had turned the page or if the final few points of that match were still fresh in the players’ memories, she said, “It’s a constant topic at every meeting that we have. It gives us fire to work hard through the preseason, which can get monotonous, and it’s as if the national championship is the first game of our season.”
Talk about a grudge…one that has been stewing for eight months, with the images of the Cardinal squandering a 9-6 lead in the fifth set, along with what could have been their first Final Four berth since 2008, replaying in their heads.
“I do have some lingering feelings about the last couple of points. We were ahead, in a great position to finish the game. And that’s something we have to learn, to be mature enough to finish those points,” Ajanaku said.
The expectations for Stanford’s volleyball program are the same, year in and year out: to win a national title. So although last season may seem like a disappointment, a mere 10-minute sequence of points against the best team in the country decided the final outcome of months-worth of effort. 2013 was far from a failure for the Cardinal — ultimately setting the stage for a huge championship push this year.
No. 3 Stanford, as ranked in the AVCA’s preseason coaches’ poll, returns four of its five All-Americans from last year, three of whom comprise the team’s Core Four of juniors — not to be confused with that of the New York Yankees, though they have the potential to dominate their sport in a similar fashion.
AVCA First Team All-American middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, second-team setter Madi Bugg, honorable mention outside hitter Jordan Burgess, as well as outside hitter Brittany Howard makes up the fearsome foursome, who have been in the starting lineup together since their freshman year.
“The three other juniors — it’s awesome because I got to see how everyone else evolved. Personality-wise, playing-wise, athleticism, everything, you get to go through this with three people and they’re all having the same experiences you’re having,” Ajanaku said. “We’ve all been put in the exact same position.”
The Cardinal’s team dynamic seems to be one of their strengths, with a tight-knit group that is rarely out of sync on the court. The players’ open personalities are a big reason why mid-season adjustments, particularly last season, are so manageable and effective. At the end of October, after a five-set loss at home to USC — Stanford’s first loss in Maples since December 2011 — the team rattled off 12 consecutive victories, losing just three sets, before falling in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
“We’re lucky in that we have a team that is not full of drama queens. At other programs across the country, you have girls that butt heads all the time,” said senior libero Kyle Gilbert. “It’s really special that we’re all friends.”
With that said, Stanford volleyball graduated four seniors last season, including some big presences in the locker room who were some of the best players in team history. Outside hitter Rachel Williams ’14 and middle blocker Carly Wopat ’14 were the 13th and 14th players to record 1,000 career kills for Stanford since 1986, and Wopat’s .392 career hitting percentage ranks second in program history (min. 500 attempts).
“Our team chemistry is significantly different,” said head coach John Dunning. “[Rachel Williams ‘14] was a wonderful leader by the time she was done. She was mature, very strong, and not afraid to step in. [Carly Wopat ‘14] was a leader by example — very competitive and very angry when we didn’t win or didn’t perform well. Everyone else was forced to step up because they knew what her reaction would be…We just have to do it differently this year.”
Gilbert has already started to take a larger leadership role on the team, as one of the two seniors on the Cardinal’s roster.
“When you’re not a senior you don’t feel that you have to be in a role of leadership or responsibility. You’re kind of just playing — doing what the coaches say and doing what your captains say,” Gilbert said. “But stepping into that role, it’s tough because if something happens with the team, it’s a reflection on your leadership.”
It’s even arguable that replacing Williams and Wopat’s leadership might be tougher than replacing their output on the court. This season, Dunning said that the entire 13-player roster is in play, with strong competition emerging in the first couple of weeks in the preseason.
Redshirt freshman Merete Lutz and junior Megan McGehee have competed for Wopat’s vacated spot at middle blocker, and redshirt freshman Ivana Vanjak and freshman Sidney Brown from Tampa, Florida, are in the mix to start on the left side.
But Ajanaku, coming off her sophomore season in which she ranked ninth in the nation with a .438 hitting percentage and 21st in the nation with 1.38 blocks per set, will continue to command the Cardinal in the middle, but maybe with a bigger target on his back.
“Teams really focused on stopping our middles last year, and I was just on the other side of that — they mostly focused on Carly. I don’t know if they’re going to do the same this year, but I hope they do,” Ajanaku said. “I’m not really scared of that. That will be the best thing that could ever happen to me — people working harder to stop kills and shoot around my block would push me to become better.”
The block was certainly a big part of Stanford’s game last season, as they ranked fourth in the country with an average of three blocks per set, and that figures to be a big part of their game this season as well. While Pac-12 coaches have picked the Cardinal to win the conference after Washington edged them last season, the team has its own outlook for this season.
“The expectations are higher than last year: it’s not just to win a national championship, it’s to dominate the nation and I think that’s what we’re going to do,” Ajanaku said.
Dunning said, “What this team wants is to know how good they will be at the end of the season…I’m not sure about how good we will be, but I’m so excited about how good we can be.”
The Cardinal begin their season with the AVCA Showcase this weekend, taking on Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, tonight and No. 7 Nebraska in Lincoln on Sunday. As has become customary with Dunning’s Stanford teams, the non-conference schedule only gets tougher, as preseason No. 1 Penn State comes to Maples on Sept. 5 for the Card’s home opener and a rematch of the 2013 quarterfinal.
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.