By Mark Soltau
Carly Wopat has seen the ending: She's standing on the court at KeyArena in Seattle on Dec. 21, celebrating an NCAA title with her teammates.
"I've played the moment out in my head over and over," said Wopat, a 6-foot-2 senior middle blocker on the seventh-ranked Stanford women's volleyball team. "That's what you have to do is visualize the whole journey."
While some teams hate looking ahead, that isn't the case with the Cardinal. After winning its sixth Pac-12 crown in seven years in 2012, players saw their season end abruptly to Michigan in the NCAA Regional Finals in Berkeley, finishing at 30-4. They didn't enjoy feeling.
"We're not afraid to talk about it," Wopat said. "We want to go to Seattle and we want to win the national championship. We also talk about how there is a lot of work that has to be done to get there."
For that to happen, Wopat must have another monster season. Last year, the Santa Barbara native earned AVCA and Volleyball Magazine First Team All-America honors and led the Pac-12 with a .399 hitting percentage. Entering Wednesday night's Pac-12 Conference opener at Cal, Wopat leads the conference with a .513 hitting percentage that ranks third nationally. She has recorded 496 blocks, and needs seven more to pass former Stanford star Kerri Walsh for fifth place on the school's all-time list. Wopat's career hitting percentage currently ranks second in program history.
"She's very driven to succeed and absolutely hates it when she doesn't perform well," said head coach John Dunning, whose team is off to a 7-2 start. "She's going to come back each day and push herself."
Teammates, as well. While Wopat leads by example, she's also trying to be more vocal.
"I do see myself taking more of a leadership role, partly because I'm one of three seniors," she said, referring to Mary Ellen Luck and Rachel Williams. "Each person kind of leads in their own way."
Dunning said she makes everyone around her better.
"She's smart and she cares about the team," said Dunning. "She doesn't like it when they're not playing right at the edge because she's there doing it. She's learning how to manage that."
Asked what qualities she likes most about her team, Wopat said, "I think we're going to have a lot of fight, energy and determination, which was one of our characteristics last year. We won a lot of close matches and I think that's going to carry over this year."
Dunning describes Wopat as a free spirit, something she gets from her family.
"She loves to hike, loves the outdoors, and loves to do exciting things," he said. "She has skydived. She comes from a very fun-loving family."
Athletic, too. Her father, Ron, finished 12th at the 1980 Olympic Trials in the decathlon and made the 1981 U.S. decathlon team. Her mother, Kathy, competed in gymnastics and track and field at UC Santa Barbara. Wopat and twin sister Samantha played volleyball together at Stanford for two years before Sam passed away in March of 2012. Wopat also has two younger brothers, Jackson and Eli.
Wopat started playing grass volleyball when she was 10 and has loved the sport ever since.
"I am a very competitive person," she said. "I get in a zone and want to win."
Asked what she enjoys most about playing, Wopat said, "It's being part of something bigger than myself and accomplishing things. Even when I get a kill, I'll be real excited and pumped up and I'll turn around and celebrate with my teammates because we all did it together. It's really cool to have this flow when everybody is working together."
Even with such high personal and team expectations, Wopat makes a point of remembering why she trains so hard and is so passionate about the sport.
"We often remind ourselves why we started playing volleyball in the first place, and that's because it's fun," said Wopat. "We all love it. And when you're having fun out there on the court with your teammates, that is actually when you play your best."
Wopat is majoring in human biology and might attend medical school. First, she wants to give professional volleyball a shot.
"I have a lot of future plans," she said. "I want to keep my options open."
No matter where life takes her after graduation this spring, she will always be grateful to Stanford for opening up a world of possibilities.
"I've met so many amazing people," said Wopat. "I've made so many friends and I know those connections are going to stay with me for a lifetime."
Wopat marvels when she thinks about what some of her classmates have accomplished.
"There have been kids who are already millionaires who are already running their own businesses and kids who are heirs to thrones in foreign countries and kids who have already written books," she said. "Everybody has something unique and special about them."
Noon-time chats with friends are seldom boring.
"Every time I sat down for lunch last year, the discussions were always about politics, global warming, or some type of major issue and it was really interesting," said Wopat. "I actually learned a lot just from listening and throwing in my own part."