Senior Kyle Gilbert won't mind if she doesn't get much recognition for her role in the success of the Stanford women's volleyball team. She never much enjoyed being the center of attention.
Her Cardinal teammates understand her importance though, and will look to her and fellow senior Morgan Boukather for leadership as Stanford, ranked third in the nation and picked to win the Pac-12, opens its season Friday at Iowa State.
Gilbert plays the libero position, a somewhat misunderstood spot on the court. Not just a defensive specialist but also not one of the bigger scorers, Gilbert is athletic enough to play any position but she's not tall enough to play the front row.
"The libero has changed the game," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "It's a difference maker. The libero has to be aggressive by nature because her game is hustle. She has a huge leadership role."
The libero came into existence internationally in 1998 and was accepted into the collegiate game in 2000. For the first few years at Stanford, players shuffled in and out of the position until Gabi Ailes, who had the advantage of playing it at the club level for a few years, arrived.
"I've always liked Gabi," Gilbert said. "She's a solid, strong player whom everyone had confidence in. She plays with class and humility. I would hope I play with the same kind of class and steady play. I try to stay under the radar, but I can bring energy when it's needed."
Gilbert starts the season with 1,410 digs, 737 behind Ailes' school record. She probably won't make it to the top but she'll likely end up in second, pretty close to 2,000 if she stays healthy.
Numbers don't mean much to Gilbert though, unless it's the end of the season and the Cardinal comes out No. 1. She thinks about how to make herself better every day.
"We've grown to ignore the expectations but not in a negative way," she said. "We set our own goals and are always striving to be the best. We want to win the Pac-12 and we want to win the national title."
The Cardinal has reached the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons, a sign of success for most programs but not at Stanford.
"Our goal every year is to get to the Final Four and win a national championship," Gilbert said. "We were bummed about last year. It feels fine this year. We have a big junior class and it's helped we've grown up together, matured together and learned how to play together. We have a ton of experience."
Gilbert was not obsessed with volleyball growing up. She just enjoyed playing.
"I started as a setter, then moved to outside hitter and opposite hitter," Gilbert said. "Everybody started passing me in height so I was switched jerseys. It was hard at first because I enjoyed hitting. After a while, I started enjoying defense and it became one of my favorite things."
She didn't get much coaching at the club level. After all, it was still a new position and not many coaches had grown up playing it.
At Stanford she grew into the position, crediting then-senior Hannah Benjamin with her development.
"Playing behind her for a year was so beneficial," Gilbert said. "I learned a lot from her. She had played at that level longer than I had and put in a lot of effort. She was key for me."
Gilbert has been a key for the Cardinal, as well. The libero position has effectively elevated ball control to a high level,
"If you want to maintain a rally you better control the ball," Dunning said. "Kyle not only has to receive the ball, but get it to the setter in a way she had handle it."
Gilbert and Boukalter, who saw limited action last year, both will play important roles for the Cardinal.
"Morgan and Kyle are very mature," Dunning said. "They know what they want, they've worked hard and they are motivated. They are learning how to step into the leadership role and they are very good at what they do."
What helps is having four returning starters around them, including first team All-American middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, All-American setter Madi Bugg and All-American outside hitter Jordan Burgess. Junior outside hitter Brittany Howard was an All-Pac-10 pick.
"They are working hard to do more to be better as a team," Dunning said. "We have motivated people who want to get on the court. There is a lot of competition in the gym."
The junior class, which also includes Megan McGehee, was the top recruiting class in the nation. The current sophomores were among the top five recruiting classes.
Grace Kennedy and Kelsey Humphreys, who played on the U.S. Junior National Team last summer, each saw some action as freshmen last year. Ivana Vanjak, a 6-foot-4 outside hitter, and 6-8 middle blocker Merete Lutz, Humphreys teammate on the junior national team, each used their redshirt years.
Freshmen Sarah Benjamin, Hannah's younger sister, and Sidney Brown are also in line for playing time.
"Sidney and Sarah have added a lot," Dunning said. "I'm surprised how well they fit in."
Gilbert and the four returning starters will carry a heavy load for the Cardinal, and they are all capable of putting up big numbers.
"It's how we inspire each other in a team setting," Dunning said. "We are trying to motivate one another to play at a higher level, to care more and to work at a higher level."
Stanford plays at No. 7 Nebraska on Sunday before returning home to host defending NCAA champion Penn State and No. 11 Illinois next weekend.
Stanford is one of three Pac-12 teams ranked in the top five and four overall. Washington is fourth, USC is fifth and Arizona State is at No. 25.
In addition, Oregon, California, Arizona, Colorado and Utah made it into the NCAA tournament. With the exception of the Sun Devils, who lost in five sets, every Pac-12 team won its first-round match. Washington beat USC to reach the Final Four. Penn State beat Stanford in five sets to reach the Final Four.
2014 STANFORD WOMEN'S VOLLEYBALL
Date Opponent Time
Friday at Iowa State 5 p.m.
Sunday at Nebraska 11 a.m.
Sept. 5 vs. Penn State 6 p.m.
Sept. 7 vs. Illinois 11 a.m.
Sept. 12 vs. Duke 7 p.m.
Sept. 13 vs. Penn 11 a.m.
Sept. 13 vs. Santa Clara 7 p.m.
Sept. 18 at San Diego 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19 at E. Washington 5 p.m.
Sept. 20 at CS Northridge 11 a.m.
Sept. 23 vs. California 6 p.m.
Sept. 26 vs. Washington State 7 p.m.
Oct. 3 vs. Oregon 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 vs. Oregon State 7 p.m.
Oct. 10 at Arizona 8 p.m.
Oct. 12 at Arizona State 11 a.m.
Oct. 17 at Colorado 6 p.m.
Oct. 19 at Utah 1 p.m.
Oct. 24 vs. UCLA 6 p.m.
Oct. 26 vs. USC 5 p.m.
Oct. 31 at Oregon State 6 p.m.
Nov. 2 at Oregon 11 a.m.
Nov. 5 vs. Arizona State TBA
Nov. 7 Arizona 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 12 at USC 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 13 at UCLA 7 p.m.
Nov. 21 at Utah TBA
Nov. 22 at Colorado 7:00 p.m.
Nov. 26 vs. Washington TBA
Nov. 28 at California TBA