Stanford has good reason to be excited again
Seniors hope to bounce back from 2009's disappointing volleyball ending
Disappointment can be a powerful motivator. Just ask members of the Stanford women's volleyball team.
Last season, and for the first time since 2005, the Cardinal suffered its earliest exit from the NCAA tournament. Plagued by injuries all season, Stanford managed to win the Pac-10 title but finished 23-8 after being eliminated by Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen at Maples Pavilion.
For then-juniors Cassidy Lichtman, Alix Klineman and Gabi Ailes, it was an inglorious ending to what had been a promising season. Fortunately for all three, they have another shot at righting that wrong.
Lichtman, Klineman and Ailes open their senior seasons this weekend at the MCM Elegante Lobo Classic in Albuquerque. The Cardinal plays Tulane on Friday, Pepperdine on Saturday and host New Mexico on Sunday.
The seniors will carry with them last season's memories and the stark reality that for just the second time since 2003 the Cardinal did not appear in the national championship match.
"I think the seniors are motivated by a couple of things," Dunning said. "They have been to two title matches but have not walked away with what they wanted. Last year, they faced a lot of adversity but gained a lot of confidence. They know they are one of the teams who have a shot."
The team members committed themselves to an offseason of building strength and finding competitive conditioning programs.
Klineman, a 6-foot-4 All-American outside hitter, spent her time working with the Anaheim Ducks.
"I've never seen a hockey game in my life," Klineman said. "But there were 20 hockey players and I was the only girl. I did the exact same workout."
Stanford strength coach Devan McConnell, a former hockey player, mediated Klineman's workout with the Ducks.
Ailes worked with a group of volleyball players in Missouri. She's from Nebraska but had an older sister, Tatum, who played for the Tigers.
Sophomore Hayley Spelman, a 6-6 outside hitter, worked with a national team member in Las Vegas over the summer.
"We came in stronger," Lichtman said. "We worked hard together in winter and spring as a team and we all decided to continue the workouts through the summer so we wouldn't lose any of the benefits. We're already ahead of where we were at this time last year."
Klineman's shoulder is nearly back to normal and sophomore (the other) setter Karissa Cook worked on her back problems through strength and conditioning. Even Dunning had to deal with an injury during last year's training camp.
So far this training camp, only redshirt freshman Charlotte Brown is limited in practice. Good news for Dunning, who emphasizes a team approach.
"The sum has to be greater than all of its parts," he said. "There are zillions of tiny details and they all add up. The key is every day, everybody getting it there to the end and not to have any regrets with the point of view as a team."
Klineman, Lichtman and Ailes are returning All-Americans, with sophomores Cook, Hannah Benjamin, Spelman and Jessica Walker and junior Stephanie Browne adding experience to the mix.
Dunning called the three senior All-Americans "perhaps the best player at their position in the country."
While Lichtman displays the best overall athletic ability, Ailes was by far the most improved player at her position and that's saying a lot, since she had pretty good sophomore and freshman seasons.
Ailes had to break an old habit to become one of the best liberos in the nation.
"I was always taking a little hop before the ball was hit," Ailes said. "So John had me stand there and not move my feet. He'd hit the ball and then I'd move. Suddenly balls were flying by me because I just stood there. It was frustrating."
It took some time but Ailes got it and went on to a record-setting year. She's the school's most prolific digger with 1,641 career digs, surpassing Olympian and three-time All-American Kristin Richards.
"She's driven and she's competitive," Dunning said of Ailes. "She will do what is necessary to become better. There were a few technical things but what helped most was her ability to read. There's a lot to see out there and until you can see it you can't make the right decision. She reads now. She looks at the right things and she's in the right place."
Ailes led the Pac-10 with 5.23 digs per set and enters the season as the active conference leader in career digs, nearly 700 more then the next highest player. She also ranks fourth among active players in career aces (66) and seventh in career assists (306).
Klineman has the chance to become the 10th four-time All-American in school history. She has led the Cardinal offensively in each of her first three seasons and leads all active Pac-10 players with 1395 kills, ranks third with 841 digs and 214 blocks and is tied for fifth in the conference with 64 aces.
Lichtman showed that she can play anywhere on the court. She led the team with 22 double-doubles, including 10 triple doubles. She is fifth among active Pac-10 players in assists (1503), sixth in digs (756) and seventh in aces (52).
The senior class, along with Browne, has an 86-15 record through three seasons. The group has claimed three consecutive Pac-10 titles.
Stanford's five freshmen were named the third-best recruiting class in the nation by PrepVolleyball. The group boasts of two of the top five recruits in the country: No. 3 Rachel Williams and No. 4 Carly Wopat. Sam Wopat comes in ranked No. 40 and Lydia Bai at No. 43. Mary Ellen Luck, whose brother Andrew happens to be the starting quarterback for the Cardinal football team, is also a freshman.
Dunning will be looking for his 700th career win on Friday, with 262 of those coming with Stanford. The most important number, however, may come at the end of the season.