6-2 | Cardinal off to an “interesting” start

by Glenn on September 20, 2015

“May you live in interesting times.” I’ve never understood: Is this a curse or a blessing? Hard to know. It’s certainly true that the unfolding season of the Stanford Cardinal Women’s Volleyball Team is interesting.

The storyline for this season was supposed to be a mostly unchallenged domination of all competition on the march to the NCAA championship which Penn State stole from them last year (okay, won fair and square—but this year was going to be the redemption year that last year wasn’t).

Four of the six floor starters were returning this fall. An extraordinary freshman hitter, Hayley Hodson, was joining the team to replace one of those starters. All that Stanford Coach John Dunning had to do was figure out who would replace libero Kyle Gilbert.

And then star middle blocker Inky Ajanaku was injured this past summer.

And then the other middle blocker, Merete Lutz, received some sort of hand injury during pre-season practice. She didn’t play the first couple of games and is now playing with the little fingers on her dominant hand wrapped.

Then something happened to Jordan Burgess. She is playing, but she has some sort of condition—one assumes a shoulder injury—that has her being replaced from time to time on the service line. When she does serve, it’s a very soft hit. Her back row play is stellar, though, so she does contribute on defense. But overall she is not the efficient and deadly player on offense that she was last year. (Yet, one hopes.)

So it’s interesting.

I’m a fan, which means I am hopeful, but my expectations have certainly changed for the season. I assumed I would feel in every match this year the same way I did last year (except in the contest with Penn State which I’ve written about here)—that there was a certain inevitability of a victory every time. I knew last year’s semi-final against Penn State would be tough, but Stanford’s only other loss last season—to Washington—felt a little flukeish. I recall it being a road game on the night before Thanksgiving and while I admire the play of Washington’s Krista Vansant—which I admire more now that she is part of Team USA (and off to what I hope will be a successful international career) and not competing against “my” team—in general my belief is that teams with balanced scoring will do better than those with unbalanced scoring. Otherwise, last year if Stanford played, they won. That’s just how it went.

This year, nothing feels routine. The on court demeanor of the players seems poised, but it feels like there is some scrambling going on. Coach Dunning is subbing more than normal. And we’re trying to find the sweet spot for the outside hitters. Burgess is always on the left, but I think I’ve seen Howard and Hodson taking swings from both sides of the court. Howard seems a physically stronger player this year. An effective play is setting her in the back row so she scores down the pipe.

Stanford recruited a couple of middle blockers this year but so far this season, Lutz’ counterpart in the middle has been Ivana Vanjak, an outside hitter who has been moved to the center.

Last night’s game against St. Mary’s (California) gave the Cardinal coaching staff the chance to test some other players in the lineup. I think all 14 players on the roster made it onto the court, even for just a play or two.

The Cardinal has had six matches since my last post.

I had some distracted viewing of the victory over Illinois. We were 3-0 at that point.

Cardinal comes back to defeat Illinois, 16-25, 27-25, 25-18, 25-21! Up next, No. 1 Penn State on Saturday at 5 p.m. PT! #gostanford

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I saw every moment of the Penn State loss, which was hard to watch. You hate to acknowledge the strengths of other teams, but I do think Russ Rose’s crew has more depth than Stanford’s. Penn State has balanced scoring that is broader—primarily Washington, Whitney, Courtney, Franti—and multiple options in case of injury. Their only weakness is mitigated by NCAA rules. I think if last year Stanford and Penn State had to play each other using the subbing rules of international volleyball—FIVB—Stanford might have had an advantage because more of their players were playing all six rotations, following while not required to follow international style of play. As it is, Rose’s genius is that he uses his players as specialists. They are killers. And they are extraordinary. (Thus far, Penn State is 11-0 and has yet to lose a set.) Stanford was now 3-1, which didn’t feel too bad because last year Penn State lost on the road to Stanford early in the season and maybe the roles could be reversed this year.

I was working while Stanford lost to North Carolina. Now we were 3-2, which made you think, “Oh, no, it’s going to be one of those seasons.”

But now we’ve won three games, against Duke,

🌲❤️ #gostanford

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Pacific,

🌲💥 #gostanford

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and St. Mary’s.

🌲❤️ Pac-12 play up next…

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Got to watch a bit of the latter two, which was encouraging, if not totally satisfying because they aren’t the teams we need to beat. But wins are wins and we need them. After the victory against St. Mary’s, Coach Dunning said,

“We’ve been through a bit this year–we’ve had some injuries and things, so it has been hard to feel the flow, but I think we’re starting to get there … I thought our whole game fit together better tonight; volleyball is a lot of serve and pass, if you do those well, you’ve got an advantage. And, I thought we served and passed really well tonight.” (Quote found here.)

We’re off to a interesting start.

***

We’re 6-2 as the conference season opens this Tuesday against Cal. Cal should be no problem. They lost to Pacific and while they also won a three-set match against Saint Mary’s this weekend, it was a much closer contest (St. Mary’s was -21, -23, and -24 versus the Bears and -14, -16, and -14 against the Cardinal, who played their entire team).

The interesting game will be versus USC next Sunday afternoon. (In early season action, USC beat North Carolina 3-1, who the Cardinal lost to 3-0.) USC has a star senior, Samantha Bricio, with a wicked serve. But she seemed alone last year. Stanford was able to keep her attack percentage pretty low. This year, USC is off to a 12-0 start and has only lost two sets. This will be an interesting match.