Jordan Burgess, Madi Bugg and Brittany Howard have faced incredibly high expectations since joining the Stanford women's volleyball program in the fall of 2012 as three-fourths of the nation's top-ranked recruiting class. That's nothing compared to the expectations they place on themselves and each other.
The three senior All-Americans made it to their first Final Four last year after slipping in the regional final the previous two years.
Defending national champion Penn State knocked the Cardinal (33-2 last year) out of the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons.
Stanford opens its 40th year Friday at home against Texas A&M and coach Laurie Corbelli with the first serve scheduled for 6 p.m. The match will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks, with former Cardinal coach Don Shaw serving as analyst.
Stanford also hosts Minnesota on Sunday at 1 p.m.
The Cardinal opens without the services of middle blocker 6-foot-3 Inky Ajanaku, who suffered a knee injury playing with the U.S. senior national team over the summer. Ajanaku, who had surgery, plans to redshirt and return for her final season in 2016. She, too, was part of the No. 1 class in '12.
"It's very different," Burgess said. "She's such a huge presence when she steps on the court. She can be as much a leader as she was when she played. When people get hurt, they tend to get quieter. Inky does not."
Stanford has its sights on winning the national championship, a goal within reach in any given year. Despite not bringing home the first-place trophy since 2004, the Cardinal has enjoyed more success in the postseason than any other program. Stanford owns more wins (108), more Final Four appearances (19), more appearances in the title match (14) and ranks second to the Nittany Lions' seven national titles with six.
Stanford and Penn State are the only two schools to have participated in all 34 previous NCAA tournaments and the Cardinal has never been eliminated in the first round.
If any group understands what it means to uphold that kind of success, it's the current senior class.
"Almost no one in the country has had as much success as this group," said Stanford coach John Dunning, whose enters his 15th year at Stanford with a 401-69 mark. "Anyone would build on that strength. There is a lot of talent in the gym. We have a chance to be really good."
The seniors (90-12) have been really good, averaging 30 wins a year and capturing a pair of Pac-12 titles. They've won nearly 90 percent of their matches since coming to Stanford and have won 55 of the 60 (.917) conference matches they've played.
Even without the massively talented Ajanaku, Volleyball Magazine's National Player of the Year last season and a first team AVCA All-American, the Cardinal will do just fine.
Redshirt sophomore Merete Lutz, who stands 6-8 and also received All-American recognition last year, returns to the starting lineup.
In addition to Ajanaku, Stanford also will need to replace libero Kyle Gilbert and opposite Morgan Boukather, both All-American honorable mention. That's where the best college players you've never heard of come in. Look for juniors Grace Kennedy (6-3) and Kelsey Humphreys and 6-4 redshirt sophomore Ivana Vanjak to continue making significant contributions along with sophomores Sarah Benjamin and Sidney Brown.
Humphreys played on the U.S. junior national team that also included Burgess and Lutz. Vanjak, with Croatia, and Brown also have national team experience.
Hayley Hodson, a 6-3 outside hitter who trained with the U.S. Senior National Team, leads a talented group of freshmen. Hodson teamed with Ajanaku and Cardinal grads and former All-Americans Alix Klineman, Cassidy Lichtman and Kristin (Richards) Hildebrand to help the Americans win the gold medal at the Pan American Cup in June.
"I think she's ready," Dunning said of the nation's No. 1 recruit. "She's skilled and experienced. She can find her way on the court. A lot people come in with accolades. It depends on if they can handle the jump."
Payton Chang enters Stanford as a high school All-American and a participant in the U.S. national program. She's also a top sand volleyball player. She's currently in the competition for libero, along with Benjamin and freshman Halland McKenna, who also has experience as an outside hitter.
Tami Alade, a 6-2 middle blocker out of Canada, and Alexis Froistad, a 6-2 middle blocker who attended Salinas High, add to the depth of the freshmen class.
Courtney Bowen may become the biggest surprise of the new players. A gifted athlete out of Brooklyn, the 6-4 middle blocker turned to volleyball while recovering from a basketball injury. She also competed in lacrosse, badminton and swimming while making time to practice playing both the piano and flute.
For kicks, Bowen enjoys the great outdoors on long distance biking trips. She's made it from Massachusetts to Maine and Seattle to San Francisco.
"We found out about her after she was admitted to school," Dunning said. "She could be a super talent."
Ajanaku will make her presence felt as she continues her rehab. If she can't play, well, she'll coach.
"I'm going to get this team ready to win a national championship," she said. "There are a lot of great people and it's exciting to see. It's an interesting viewpoint. I get to say things I've heard since I was a freshman. I'm a lot less patient as a coach."
2015 STANFORD WOMEN'S VOLLEYBALL
Date Opponent Time
Friday vs. Texas A&M 6 p.m.
Sunday vs. Minnesota 1 p.m.
Sept. 4 at Illinois% 2 p.m.
Sept. 5 at Penn St. 5 p.m.
Sept. 10 at North Carolina 3 p.m.
Sept. 11 at Duke 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 18 vs. Pacific 7 p.m.
Sept. 19 vs. St. Mary's 7 p.m.
Sept. 22 at Cal* 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 vs. USC* 4 p.m.
Sept. 30 at Arizona* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 2 at Arizona St.* 6 p.m.
Oct. 9 vs. Oregon St.* 6 p.m.
Oct. 11 vs. Oregon* 5 p.m.
Oct. 16 at Utah* 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 at Colorado* 1 p.m.
Oct. 21 vs. Washington* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 23 vs. WSU* 7 p.m.
Oct. 28 vs. Arizona St.* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 30 vs. Arizona* 8 p.m.
Nov. 5 at Oregon* 8 p.m.
Nov. 8 at Oregon St.* 11 a.m.
Nov. 12 at Washington* 8 p.m.
Nov. 15 at WSU* 11 a.m.
Nov. 19 vs. Colorado* TBD
Nov. 20 vs. Utah* TBD
Nov. 25 vs. Cal* TBD
Nov. 27 at UCLA* TBD
Dec. 4-5 NCAA first, second rounds
Dec. 11-12 NCAA regionals
Dec. 17-19 NCAA Final Four#
% at State College, Pa.
# Omaha, Neb.