Cardinal chances look healthy with Williams
Women's volleyball team opens NCAA Tournament at home Friday at home against Jackson State to begin its title quest
Injuries have prevented junior outside hitter Rachel Williams from duplicating last year's successful season in which she earned All-American honorable mention status.
Williams has still appeared in about 75 percent of the 112 sets the Stanford women's volleyball team has played this season. More importantly, she's still one of the top threats in the nation when she's healthy.
As the second-ranked Cardinal (27-3) prepares to open the NCAA tournament Friday night, Williams is as healthy as she's been for a while and that's good news for Stanford.
"She's also had to learn a new position," Cardinal coach John Dunning said. "She's had to nurse some shoulder problems but now she's strong and healthy."
Stanford hosts Jackson State (24-11) on Friday at 8 p.m., a match preceded by Loyola Marymount (18-12) and Western Kentucky (32-3) at 5:30 p.m.
While postseason volleyball will be going on, the Pac-12 football championship game also will be in full swing at Stanford Stadium. Volleyball fans are encouraged to find alternate routes to Maples Pavilion.
Williams ranks fifth on the team with 173 kills and third with 72 total blocks. It was enough to earn her Pac-12 honorable mention this year.
Dunning has been forced to use her judiciously this season. For the most part, Williams sees action at crunch time and/or in the deciding set.
"She has stepped up for us," said Dunning, who was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year earlier this week.
Williams is also one of the 10 returning players whom Dunning calls the framework of the team.
"There is something special about those 10 returners," Dunning said. "They fight through every set, practice hard every day and challenge each other. You can see how determined they are. They've been through this and understand how hard you have to play."
When the five highly touted freshmen — the nation's No. 1 recruiting class — entered Stanford in the fall, it was also the returning players who allowed an easy transition for them.
"They provided a wonderful meshing of returning experience with the incoming experience," Dunning said. "The 10 players have created an atmosphere where challenges are dealt with as a team and not as an individual. They've all been remarkable."
In many ways, it's been a surprising season for Stanford, which was picked to finish second to UCLA in the preseason coaches' poll despite having just four seniors on a team that would have to rely on the influx of freshmen.
The Cardinal lost its first five-set match of the year, at Penn State, and then came back to win its next four five-set matches, including two on the road in a conference typically considered to be the best in the nation.
The Pac-12 and Big 10 each qualified seven teams for the NCAA tournament, but only the Pac-12 can claim that its top five teams are all national seeds.
"We had to win a big match to know we could win a big match," Dunning said of a five-set home victory over then No. 2 Oregon. "We had to fight back to do that. I think that's when they thought they could do this. But then came USC and UCLA and winning builds confidence."
The top five in kills — junior Carly Wopat, Williams and freshmen Jordan Burgess, Inky Aganaku and Brittany Howard — average just over 12 1/2 kills a set, an impressive number considering that's half the needed points.
The next four in kills — Morgan Boukather, Lydia Bai, freshman Megan McGehee and senior Hayley Spelman — average nearly 5 1/2 kills per set, which means they are capable of providing big plays at critical moments.
Stanford became a defensive oriented team last year and has continued that through this season while adding offensive power.
Sophomore libero Kyle Gilbert leads with 516, followed by three freshmen: Burgess (357), Howard (296) and Madi Bugg (243). Senior setter Karissa Cook has 139 digs.
Bugg also has proven to be a powerful server, with a team-leading 25 aces to go with 871 assists. Wopat has 19 aces to go with a team-best 152 total blocks and a .399 hitting percentage. Ajanaku has 121 blocks.
In other words, the Cardinal maintains a diversity of offensive and defensive standouts that have been able to fend off the rest of the Pac-12. The next step is the NCAA tournament.
The last time Stanford visited UC Davis, Haylee Donaghe was a senior for the Aggies while little sister Hannah Donaghe was on injured reserve with Stanford.
The top-ranked Cardinal (6-0) visits UC Davis (2-2) on Friday for a 7 p.m. nonconference contest before traveling to Gonzaga (6-1) for a 2 p.m. game Sunday.
The game in Spokane also will feature a sister vs. sister matchup. Stanford senior Joslyn Tinkle and Gonzaga freshman Elle Tinkle face off from opposite sides of the court.
Joslyn is enjoying a career year in 2012-13, averaging 18.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while shooting 64.4 percent from the field. Elle has seen action in all seven of the team's games, averaging 4.6 points over 8.7 minutes per game.
"It's an awesome opportunity to not only see my sister and my family, but it's a really cool feeling because here I am a senior, about to leave and end my career here at Stanford while she's just beginning hers," Tinkle said. "I'm very happy and excited for her, and she's playing well. It's going to be a really cool atmosphere and its extra special this year that I get to share it with her."
Following this two-game road trip, Stanford takes a two-week break for finals. The Cardinal hosts Pacific on Dec. 15.
"The last two games, Davis and Gonzaga, those are the games we're going to live with for two weeks, so you want to make sure that you play really well in those games," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "It's very hard to go that two weeks and not have a game."
Stanford junior guard-forward Anthony Brown will miss the remainder of the season due to a hip injury, Cardinal coach Johnny Dawkins said Wednesday. Luckily, Dawkins still has Andy Brown, who scored a career-high 17 points and had a career-best seven rebounds to help Stanford beat visiting Seattle, 68-57, in a nonconference game Wednesday night.
Stanford (5-3) hosts Denver in a nonconference game Sunday at 2 p.m.
Brown, who is scheduled to undergo surgery in mid-December, will apply for a medical redshirt.
"We are all hoping that Anthony's surgery goes well and wish him a speedy recovery," said Dawkins. "Anthony has played an important role for our team throughout his career and we expected him to be significant contributor once again this season. I have no doubt Anthony will work hard to come back even stronger."
Stanford also played without guard Aaron Bright for the fourth straight game.