Inky Ajanaku's return to the Stanford lineup would have been enough to make the Cardinal women's volleyball team an instant contender for the national title.
After all, as a junior two years ago, Ajanaku was named Volleyball Magazine National Player of the Year, an AVCA first team All-American and a Honda Volleyball Sports Award finalist.
Kelsey Humphreys. Photo by John Todd/isiphotos.com
Former Stanford all-American and national team member Cassidy Lichtman, one of the most versatile players in school history, joined the coaching staff and may be a perfect fit for an eclectic team.
The Cardinal did lose three All-American seniors who finished among the school's top 10 in several career categories, including setter Madi Bugg, who is second all-time in assists behind only Bryn Kehoe.
"Those are the girls I came in with and it was tough not to be part of that strong bond," Ajanaku said. "But I am super excited with this group. The sophomores and freshmen bring great energy."
It should be interesting to watch how Ajanaku and sophomore opposite hitter Hayley Hodson work together. Hodson, the national Freshman of the Year and All-American a year ago, was the nation's top recruit entering Stanford.
"We all know her ability. She's pretty amazing," Ajanaku said. "I'm shocked at her maturity and the way she approaches the game. Her effort and focus helps everybody. She's such a great team player."
Ajanaku brings a special, uplifting quality to the court that is difficult to explain but easy to see. While missing a year due to a knee injury sustained during her stay with the U.S. national team in the summer of 2015, she became an unofficial coach.
"She stepped into that role more as a mentor," Stanford senior setter Kelsey Humphreys said. "It was a good way for her to stay involved with everybody."
Humphreys, who has also been involved with the national program, starts the season as Stanford's setter. Her mother, Wendy Rush, ranks third in all-time assists as one of only three Cardinal players to surpass the 2,000 mark. Rush was a four-time All-American at Stanford.
"I'm here to fight and play hard every day," Humphreys said. "I make no assumptions. Madi and I pushed each other and she made me better."
Ajanaku gives Stanford a formidable presence in the middle, where the 6-foot-8 redshirt junior Merete Lutz returns following an All-American season.
Middle blocker may be the Cardinal's strongest position, with redshirt junior Ivana Vanjak, sophomores Tami Alade and Alexis Froistad, redshirt freshman Courtney Bowen and freshman Audriana Fitzmorris are all capable of producing at a high level.
Sophomore libero Halland McKenna also returns following a productive year that saw her earn all-freshmen conference honors. Sophomore defensive specialist Payton Chang also returns.
In addition to Fitzmorris, the freshmen class enters as one of the most decorated in school history. Setter Jenna Gray was last year's Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year, was a four-time prep All-American and a state champion in the javelin.
Opposite Kathryn Plummer was the California Gatorade Player of the Year, a three-time prep All-American and has excelled, both indoor and beach, on the international level.
Outside hitter Michaela Keefe was recognized as one of the top 40 players in the nation by PrepVolleyball and was a two-time league MVP in basketball.
Twin sister Caitlin Keefe was an all-section pick in volleyball and a two-time all-league basketball player.
The Keefe's parents, Adam and the former Kristen Klein, are recognized as two of Stanford's all-time great athletes. Klein was a four-year all-American and an Olympian. Keefe played several years in the NBA.
Defensive specialist Morgan Hentz was Kentucky's Gatorade Player of the Year, a prep All-American and helped the U18 national team place second at the World Championships in Peru.
Fitzmorris was USA Today's National Player of the Year, a four-time prep All-American and played for the U.S. junior national team. Her mother, Maria Luisa, played on the Peruvian national basketball team for 12 years and father Michael played pro basketball in Peru and Sweden.
"This team has a chance to be really, really good," Cardinal coach John Dunning said. "The question is where can we get to? My feeling about this group is we're going to get a lot better."
For Dunning, the most interesting aspect may be in the variety of skill sets the group possesses.
"We have 16 people who can all play," Dunning said. "There are different ways people fit together. We'll have a dramatically different style. I have to be careful not to do too many things."