Freshman class growing up quickly for Stanford volleyball
Cardinal will put its Pac-12 Conference co-lead on the line against defending NCAA champ UCLA following a big sweep of No. 6-ranked USC
Inky Ajanaku, Brittany Howard, Jordan Burgess and Madi Bugg are quickly earning the respect of their peers and women's volleyball observers throughout the volleyball universe.
Friday night's match against visiting UCLA will help define just how important the freshmen class, which also includes Megan McGehee, has been, and will continue to be, for fourth-ranked Stanford.
The Bruins are in an awkward position as they prepare for the scheduled 6 p.m. first serve. The defending national champions have already lost twice in Pac-12 Conference play and will likely need to sweep their weekend trip (they visit Cal on Sunday) to climb back into the title chase.
With five teams ranked among the top seven in the nation and several others deserving to be ranked, any conference loss will be magnified. Which makes Stanford's situation all the more impressive.
The Cardinal (7-0, 15-2) and Washington remain the lone undefeated teams in conference play with with a handful of matches remaining in a competitive first half.
It's probably just as well that the freshmen class have yet to experience a full conference season. They seem oblivious to the pressures of playing top teams night in and night out anyway.
Leave it to sophomore libero Kyle Gilbert to put Friday's match into perspective.
"I have a lot of friends on that team so it will be great fun," she said following Stanford's 25-18, 25-16, 25-18 victory over No. 6 USC on Wednesday night in Maples Pavilion. "They beat us twice last year so we're out for revenge."
Should the Cardinal, which has won 13 in a row following its early two-match losing streak (to current No. 1 Penn State and No. 8 Hawaii), gain its vengeance, the reward is a visit to No. 2 Washington next Friday night in a showdown.
The Cardinal opened the year ranked sixth nationally and picked to finish second in the Pac-12. Those expectations were based, for the most part, on having 10 returning lettermen, including a pair of All-Americans.
The play of the freshmen class has boosted those expectations a little bit and rightly so. The top rated recruiting class of last year has risen to the challenge.
Not that coach John Dunning had any doubt.
"The right thing to do with this team is to set the expectations as high as possible," he said before the season. "We have expectations every year of striving to win the Pac-12 and the national championship. We want to keep our minds focused on improving throughout the season to see just how good of a team we are."
Stanford continues to win even without the full-time presence of senior setter Karissa Cook and junior outside hitter Rachel Williams, both of whom have been plagued by injuries.
Howard and Burgess have allowed Stanford to remain strong on the front line even without Williams, an All-American with Carly Wopat last year, at full strength.
Ajanaku has complemented Wopat's efforts at middle blocker and Bugg has been nothing short of spectacular in taking up the slack for Cook.
Gilbert is following a solid freshman season with a standout sophomore year. She collected 22 digs in the win over the Women of Troy, just off her season high of 25 against Oregon and the 13th time she's reached double digits.
"I really like doing that," Gilbert said of digging. "Hustling, for me, is the most fun in the world and proving to people I can get to it."
Playing the No. 1 team in the country is always a challenge. But seldom do you get three shots.
That's the position Stanford (9-4, 3-0 NorPac) finds itself in this weekend. Having already played top-ranked Maryland and North Carolina earlier in the season, the Cardinal travels to Amherst, Mass., on Friday for a neutral-site game against No. 1 Syracuse before playing at No. 4 Connecticut on Sunday.
Not that third-year head coach Tara Danielson minds. A feisty, cutting-edge technician and tactician who has guided the Cardinal to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, she intentionally toughened up the schedule to help her players gain experience against elite programs. She brainstormed with assistants Steve Danielson, her husband and a member of the 1996 USA Olympic Field Hockey Team, and Patrick Cota.
"This school has never won an NCAA game, why?" Danielson said. "I started researching for answers. We tried to figure out from a skill component, to physiology, from soup to nuts. We're looking at everything we have control over. How do we improve? One of those things is scheduling. How can they play an NCAA game with the top 16 teams in the country? There's only one way: You have to play the top 16 teams in the country if you plan on winning a game."
So Danielson scheduled the best. This year, Stanford has already faced five top-25 teams, going 2-3. That includes a tough early-season 3-2 loss to defending national champion Maryland in double-overtime, and a 6-2 defeat to North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Now come Syracuse and Connecticut, the lone unbeaten teams in the country. The highest-ranked Stanford has ever defeated was No. 3 Michigan State back on Aug. 31, 2001.
"You start with, `Hey, this is a great opportunity,' " said Danielson, a 1994 graduate of Massachusetts, who trained and competed for the USA Field Hockey Team from 1998 to 2005, and saw action in 89 international contests. "But I would be amiss to just claim it an opportunity. The girls have worked hard enough in the off-season; have honed their skills; and have been focused. So to just look at it as an opportunity would not recognize the team for all their hard work." (by Mark Soltau)
When Stanford (2-1, 5-5) travels to Oregon State for its Pac-12 match on Friday night, there are two possible accomplishments waiting.
With a win, the Cardinal can match its win total from last year and climb over .500, and it can also match last year's number of conference wins with just over a half of the season left.
It won't be easy. The Beavers (1-2, 6-4-1) are the only Pac-12 team with an unbeaten home record.
Stanford moves to second-place Washington (2-0-1, 7-3-2) for a Sunday showdown. The Huskies own a win over conference leader UCLA.
Zach Batteer earned Pac-12 Player of the Week honors after scoring twice in Stanford's 2-0 win over California last week. Adam Jahn leads the Cardinal with 12 points on five goals and two assists.
Stanford competes Friday at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational. The meet is expected to be the most competitive regular season meet of the year with 46 men's team and 49 women's teams scheduled to compete.
The women's 6,000-meter race will begin at 10:00 a.m. with the men's 8,000-meter race immediately following at 10:40 a.m.
The No. 7 women's team will have its hands full as six of the top-10 teams in the country are scheduled to compete. This includes conference foes No. 2 Arizona and No. 3 Washington, as once again the Pac-12 is arguably the top league in the nation in 2012.
Other contenders include No. 5 Iowa State, No. 9 Cornell and No. 10 Michigan State. Overall, 20 ranked teams will make the trip to Wisconsin.
The Cardinal women will be led by Kathy Kroeger who is a threat for the individual title. Kroeger already has a meet title to her name this season as she won the Stanford Invitational for the third-straight season.
Other top returners include, Aisling Cuffe, Jessica Tonn and Emilie Amaro, but this race will mark the first major collegiate race for several Cardinal women, including Cayla Hatton who was the runner-up at the Stanford Invitational.
On the men's side the competition is equally formidable. Top-ranked Wisconsin is the host, but six of the top-10 teams, including No. 8 Stanford are set to compete. No. 4 Oklahoma, T-No. 5 Portland, T-No.5 Iona and No. 10 Syracuse will also factor into the race at the front.
In all, 19 ranked teams will compete, although Stanford will be the lone ranked team from the Pac-12.
Individually, it remains to be seen who from the men's team is ready to step up and run at the front of races. Joe Rosa led the Cardinal at the Stanford Invitational, while Benjamin Johnson, Erik Olson and Miles Unterreiner have the most experience in big races.
Thomas Graham and Billy Orman are also scheduled to debut in the Stanford singlet.