Stanford volleyball ends era without a title

Cardinal seniors will have to settle for their remarkable sustained success after falling in NCAA championship match

Cynthia Barboza, Foluke Akinradewo, Erin Waller and Jessica Fishburn don't need to explain, apologize or otherwise discuss reaching three consecutive championship matches in women's volleyball without winning it all.

It's enough that they competed at the highest level of their sport and were recognized as among the best that ever played.

The Stanford record books are filled with their accomplishments, including the three consecutive championship match appearances.

Top-ranked Penn State defeated Stanford, 25-20, 26-24, 25-23, at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb., on Saturday to win its second consecutive NCAA title and extend its winning streak to an unthinkable 70 matches. The Nittany Lions won it; the second-ranked Cardinal (31-4) did not lose it.

"Penn State is a great team," Akinradewo said. "They have a really big block and great defense behind it, so it is hard to get kills on them. But, I think our team did an amazing job on them. We kept fighting and never gave up. It's tough losing, but at the same time I am so proud of my teammates."

Two of the most storied women's volleyball programs in the nation -- they are the only two schools to have participated in all 30 NCAA tournaments -- wrapped up the season with a bang.

The Cardinal players did not accomplish their final goal and they are disappointed and hurt. Losing at this level is the hardest thing, and that's because winning at this level is the greatest feeling.

"I think this team is incredible and this has been my favorite year at Stanford by far," Barboza said. "For me, this moment parallels something that happened earlier this year, when we found out that the U.S. National Team won the silver medal. I texted something like, 'I'm so sorry you guys were so close I feel so bad.' I got a text back from (U.S. middle blocker) Heather Bown that said, this is the happiest I've ever felt.

"That is kind of how I am walking away from this match, because this season has been unbelievable for me in terms of what I have learned about myself, what it means to be a team and what I've learned about what it means to fight," said Barboza. "I can't cry about the outcome of the match, but you can hear me choking up starting to talk about my teammates. It is not about that outcome; it's about the entire process. This year was absolutely incredible for so many reasons."

When these seniors were freshmen, Stanford was upset, at home, in the second round and coach John Dunning said at the time: "How do you explain showing heart, showing pride? When you are in this program, expectations are very high. If the only measure you go by is to get to the final match, that's too much. There is nothing I can say right now that will help the 12 girls crying in the locker room."

It applies as much now as it did then. Barboza wasn't able to play in that match after losing half her freshman season with a torn ACL. Menlo School grad Alex Fisher also missed the year with an injury. Akinradewo had 15 kills and hit .406 in the match, a precursor to her brilliant career.

In 2006, Waller had 18 kills and Fishburn recorded 20 digs in the championship match loss to Nebraska.

Last year in Sacramento, Akinradewo put the finishing touches on her national Player of the Year award. Asked about reaching the title match and not winning, she responded: "It's all worth it. This is why we come to the court every day, and why we practice hard and work so hard. Sometimes you just make mistakes."

This senior class is not the first graduating class to finish without a national title. The Cardinal won its first NCAA women's volleyball title in 1992, and the school had great teams since the sport was established on campus in the 1970s, even before the NCAA sponsored it.

"We've done incredible things with this program," Barboza said. "We've done things that have never been done before in the history of the NCAA. We played in one of the toughest conferences in the country and we have won the past three straight years. I would absolutely not call our careers a failure."

Akinradewo finished her career with the best hitting percentage by an NCAA Division I player (.446), and finished with the second-best single-season hitting percentage in Pac-10 and school history (.457), to her .499 of last season.

"I think that this group should walk away with the feeling that they are also one of the best teams ever," Dunning said. "They need to not just be proud of the things they've accomplished this year, but the body of work that they've accomplished in this senior class during their time at Stanford."

Akinradewo finished third in school history and ninth in Pac-10 history with 579 blocks for her career. For the year, Akinradewo recorded 173 blocks, a total which also ranks among the school's single-season top 10.

"We've just climbed and climbed in our talent,' Akinradewo said. "Knowing what we have accomplished is enough for me."

Stanford's athletic department is second to none, and the 14 consecutive Director's Cup attests to that. Of the eight fall sports, six were good enough to make it to the NCAA championships.

The men's cross country team finished second in the nation, the men's water polo team finished second in the nation and the women's soccer team reached the Final Four. The women's cross country team finished eighth in the nation, and the field hockey team reached the NCAA Play-In game.

There were 48 past and present Stanford athletes involved in last summer's Beijing Olympics, and they brought home 25 medals, eight of which were gold.

Barboza, Akinradewo, Alix Klineman, and maybe others from this year's team will show up in London in 2012 wearing the colors of the United States Olympic team.

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