By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Stanford's 6-foot-4 middle blocker Stephanie Browne overcame several injuries and illnesses to reach her senior year intact, including a season-ending knee injury last November in a match against UCLA.
That was nothing compared to surviving a year with her brother Scott, a 2009 West Point graduate, stationed in Afghanistan as a platoon leader, often out on patrol and out of touch with his family.
"It was the worst year of my life, worse for my mom," Browne said. "Depending on where he was, we were able to keep in touch with him but there were times he'd be out of touch for a couple of weeks in some remote spot."
Browne can talk easily about those unsteady days. Her brother returned, with no casualties to his unit, and is currently stationed in Germany.
"We're thankful to have him back," Browne said. "We were able to visit him in Germany and met many people in his platoon. He flew out here during Christmas vacation and was by my side when I went in for (knee) surgery."
Browne, who is seeking a Master's Degree this year, has lived in Hong Kong, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and California. She's been a volleyball star throughout, when she's healthy.
Browne, one of two seniors, with backup setter Katherine Sebastian, on the Cardinal women's volleyball team this season, missed her freshman year (in Ohio, where she played briefly with Stanford grad Bryn Kehoe) because of mononucleosis, and then missed her senior season (at Monte Vista High in Danville) because of a thumb injury.
She had been a regular contributor for the Cardinal, recording double-digits in kills five times, including three consecutive matches, until the knee injury put a premature end to her junior season.
She hopes her senior season ends with another deep run into the NCAA tournament.
Sebastian returns to the team after taking her junior year off. She gives Stanford some depth at the setter position, where junior Karissa Cook, who has a younger brother Brian playing for the Stanford men's volleyball team, will assume full-time duties after sharing the position with All-American Cassidy Lichtman (who currently plays professionally in Poland) the past two years.
"It's kind of cool to be on my own as a setter," Cook said. "It's always good to learn from older players and a great leader like Cassidy. Now I'm on the court all the time and in the offense. It's pretty cool."
Stanford, which won its fifth consecutive Pac-10 title last year, was picked to finish fourth this year. Losing three All-Americans in Lichtman, libero Gabi Ailes and outside hitter Alix Klineman may have lowered expectations from the outside, but the Cardinal sees things a little differently. Their expectations remain high, as in national championship caliber high.
Stanford lost in the Elite Eight, to USC, last year. The Women of Troy were swept by California in the Final Four. Washington also advanced to the Elite Eight, losing to the Bears. UCLA was eliminated by Final Four participant Texas.
A Pac-10 team appeared in the national championship match in nine of the past 10 seasons. Stanford has been that team six times.
There seems to be a lot of talented teams in the (now) Pac-12. Being picked fourth may not be so hard to imagine, especially considering the Cardinal opens the season Friday against NCAA participant Delaware at the Rice Invitational in Houston ranked sixth in the nation.
"We want to excel in everything we do," said Browne, who is fully recovered from her surgery following eight months of rehabbing.
Stanford coach John Dunning, who won his second national title with the Cardinal in 2004 and his fourth overall, will be leaning on juniors like Cook, 6-6 outside hitter Haley Spelman, middle blocker Jessica Walker and defensive specialist Hannah Benjamin to carry some extra weight this season, which will also include matches against conference newcomers Colorado and Utah.
"I like how we are playing defense right now," Dunning said. "I think we are going to frustrate people because it will be hard to get the ball on the floor against us, and we can block. If we're not going to hit as high a percentage we have to hold our opponents to a lower percentage."
Browne, Walker and Spelman give Stanford a pretty solid wall of blockers to start with. Add 6-2 sophomore Carly Wopat, who played with the USA women's junior national team this past summer and there's a lot to like about the Cardinal.
"I think we have the potential to have a very effective offense as well," Dunning said. "We just have to prove it."
Sophomore outside hitters Sam Wopat and Rachel Williams showed promise last year and will be counted upon to add to the attack. Defensive specialist Mary Ellen Luck, the younger sister of Stanford football quarterback Andrew Luck, also returns to add depth.
Dunning said redshirt freshman Lydia Bai showed a lot of promise during the team's recent trip to China.
"She was our 'Player of the Match' twice," said Dunning, who has a career record of 726-151, including a 289-49 (.855) mark at Stanford. "I don't think we knew she could hit that hard."
Add another top-notch freshmen class that includes 6-0 hitter Lauren Birks, libero Kyle Gilbert (who set a San Diego Section digs record last season), and 6-1 hitter Morgan Boukather and Stanford could continue its conference dominance.
"I expect all of them will play," Dunning said. "Morgan hurt her shoulder during the club season and is working her way back. She can compete at this level."
The conference coaches voted to play a full round-robin schedule this season before switching to a rotating schedule beginning in 2012.
It's not easy to play a more difficult schedule than that of the regular Pac-12 season, but Stanford's nonconference schedule comes pretty close.
After hosting Notre Dame on Sept. 2, the Cardinal meets Duke, which reached last year's Elite Eight. The next weekend, four-time defending national champion Penn State comes to town for a visit, and just for the sake of competition, Texas and Florida will also be around for a couple of days.
There's more than an even chance Stanford will play all four of last year's Final Four participants within a two-week stretch: Penn State, Texas (maybe), at California in the conference opener on Sept. 13 and at USC on Sept. 24.
The Cardinal will play six of last year's Sweet Sixteen teams within a stretch of eight games between Sept. 3-24.