By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
The times might be changing for women's volleyball. At least, that's what the numbers seem to be suggesting. That may be good news for second-ranked Stanford, which embarks on yet another journey through the NCAA tournament on Friday night.
The Cardinal (24-3) opens the postseason at home against Albany (22-8) at 7 p.m. Colorado State (25-4) and Cal State Fullerton (26-5) also play at Stanford at 4:30 p.m. The winners will meet Saturday in Maples Pavilion, also at 7 p.m.
For the first time since 2004, there is no real clear-cut favorite for the national title. From preseason to the current rankings, the ebb and flow is unlike any other season. Six different schools were ranked first in the nation six years ago, the NCAA record. It's also been that long since more than two teams have reached the top.
This year, Penn State, Stanford and Florida have shared the top spot, with the Gators owning the penthouse the past eight weeks. They gained their first No. 1 ranking since the 1996 season.
There's an important message to be gained from that 2004 season. Stanford went on to win the national title with a 30-6 record, the second-most losses by a volleyball champion since the first NCAA tournament in 1981.
Don't count anyone out just yet.
"The field is very deep and very equal," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "The Pac-10 was extremely competitive this year and it's the same through the whole country. Among Florida, Nebraska, Texas, Penn State, Hawaii, you can't really call them upsets."
The Gators only loss was to Texas, in the same tournament in which Stanford ended Penn State's 42-week run as the top team in the nation. Florida has won 22 straight since, but has been pushed to five sets by Nebraska and Auburn.
The Gators, which opened the season ranked 13th, deserve their overall No. 1 seed. Stanford was given the No. 3 overall seed, while eighth-ranked Penn State, the three-time defending national champion, is the fourth seed.
California, ranked fourth, was awarded the seventh seed. An upset loss to Arizona State last weekend cost the Bears, who lost to sixth-seeded USC twice, a top-four national seed.
"Arizona State did us a big favor," Dunning said. "We're lucky."
Stanford can't get too comfortable though. Cal swept the season series from the Cardinal and ninth-ranked UCLA, unseeded in the tournament, also took a match.
Other seeding oddities: sixth-ranked Texas is the No. 9 seed, 10th-ranked Northern Iowa is the fifth seed and seventh-ranked Hawaii, which reached last year's Final Four, is the 15th seed.
The Rainbow Wahine also were hurt by a late loss, dropping the WAC title match to Utah State (which meets Cal in the first round). Sometimes history matters, and sometimes it doesn't matter one whit.
A roundabout way of introducing a wide-open competition in which the Cardinal is not even guaranteed an easy trip into the Sweet Sixteen. Should Stanford get that far, they get to travel to Dayton for its regional.
"I've never been there," Dunning said. "My youngest daughter played there and my wife has been there to watch her. But there's a lot to do this week. Albany has established a consistent level of success in its area. Lots of teams never get there, so it's amazing for their program."
Stanford, which has never lost a first-round match, beat the Great Danes in the first round of the 2008 tournament.
"Colorado State and Cal State Fullerton are also very good, solid teams," Dunning said. "This is a good regional."
Stanford enters the weekend with renewed energy and excitement. The three seniors, outside hitter Alix Klineman, setter-hitter Cassidy Lichtman and libero Gabi Ailes, are as good as it gets at their respective positions and all have achieved All-American status.
"They've continued to do what they've started here," Dunning said. "They have been successful and won four straight Pac-10 titles. The best thing is they are continuing to do it."
All three seniors were also top high school players, each leading their respective schools to at least one state title. Ailes' Bellevue West team won four state titles while she was there, and she was named Nebraska's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2006.
Klineman led Mira Costa to the 2004 state Division I title and the 2006 Division II title. She was the MVP both times, a two-time California Gatorade Player of the Year and the National Player of the Year as a senior.
Lichtman was the MVP when Francis Parker won the California state Division IV title in 2005. She was also named the MVP in 2006 and is already a member of the San Diego Hall of Fame.
Of Stanford's top nine players, six are freshmen and sophomores. The key to a successful run lies in how they respond to the added pressure of a tournament.
Sophomores Hayley Spelman, Karissa Cook, Hannah Benjamin and Jessica Walker will certainly see a lot of action this weekend, while freshmen Carly Wopat, Rachel Williams and Mary Ellen Luck has shown the biggest improvement.
"I'm excited for them to play in their first tournament," Lichtman said. "They've gotten so much and have worked hard at it. It helps to have the mix of veterans and newer players because it brings n new energy."
"The freshmen have had a big impact on the team," he said. "They are talented and ready to go. Even Sam (Wopat) is ready to go."
The freshmen have also played for good club teams and some for the junior national team. That experience has enabled them to make a quick transition to the college level.
So now the fun begins.