2009 Outlook: Stanford Volleyball Begins Season With High Expectations

Aug. 14, 2009

Stanford, Calif. - Riding a string of three Pac-10 titles, three 30-win seasons, three Final Four appearances and three trips to the national title match, the Stanford women's volleyball team has understandably high expectations for the upcoming year.

Stanford's current streak of Pac-10 titles is the longest by any team in nearly a decade and its constant presence in the AVCA top 10 is unparalleled. The program's 28-year run in the NCAA Tournament is matched by only one other program. A fourth consecutive appearance in the national championship match would be unprecedented.

Stanford has accumulated more NCAA titles, won more NCAA Tournament matches, made more Final Four appearances and been in the national championship match more times than any program in the nation. The Cardinal has produced some of the truly elite players in the sport, including eight Olympians, and played in six of the last eight NCAA title matches. The program is currently under the guidance of two-time reigning Pac-10 Coach of the Year John Dunning, a man who has coached in more NCAA championship matches than anyone in the history of the sport. This season, a team that has often been defined by its veterans, will mix talented youth with experience at key positions to build on its illustrious championship tradition.

The Cardinal returns 10 letterwinners and four starters from last season's team that advanced to the NCAA title match and finished second nationally. Stanford will be hard-pressed to replace two-time national player of the year Foluke Akinradewo and three-time first-team All-American Cynthia Barboza, but a number of young players are eager to step up to the job. Also included in the graduation losses are starters Erin Waller and Jessica Fishburn.

'During the past four years, we relied heavily on the class that just graduated,' says head coach John Dunning. 'All four of them played major roles for us. There is no way to replace one of the best all-around players we have ever seen, or replace a player who might be considered the best attacking middle in collegiate history, but we have already worked very hard to form a new team.'

The key to this year's success begins with squad's primary weapon - two-time All-American Alix Klineman. One of the nation's six returning first-team All-Americans, and one of only seven two-time All-Americans back for 2009, Klineman is undeniably one of the most respected hitters in the country. The junior outside hitter has significant court experience at the sport's highest level and her contributions to the team's last two NCAA Tournament runs have been immeasurable. Already on her way to securing a spot among the best players in school history, Klineman should pound her 1,000th career kill before the Pac-10 season even begins.

Stanford also returns Cassidy Lichtman, its primary setter from last season, as well as Gabi Ailes, a libero who has put up simply unprecedented numbers in her two years as a starter. Senior middle blocker Janet Okogbaa rounds out Stanford's four returning starters.

Stanford will also rely heavily on its freshman class, which includes a talented setter, middle blocker, opposite and defensive specialist, to offset its graduation losses. Six veterans - Alex Fisher, Joanna Evans, Stephanie Browne, Katherine Sebastian, Katherine Knox and Jessica Walker - will also compete to take on more prominent roles in the lineup.

The veterans have already contributed to 119 wins, three conference titles and three Final Four appearances. Nine members of the roster have postseason court experience. The four returning members of the starting rotation include last year's assist, kill and dig leaders.

'This year, there will be new players mixed with very experienced players in the lineup,' says Dunning. 'They will learn to play together as a team and we will improve the whole season. We have yet to see just how successful we will be, but we will be proud of how hard we work and how close we become as a group. The possibilities for this group are unlimited. We will strive to make those who have come before proud of our efforts.'

Dunning has challenged the Cardinal with another high-caliber series of opponents. Stanford will play 10 regular-season matches against teams that finished 2008 in the AVCA top 10, 12 against those who finished in the top 25 and 15 against teams coming off NCAA trips. The Cardinal will also take on both teams it ousted from last year's Fort Collins Regional, and looks to defend its three consecutive titles in a league that has claimed five of the past eight national championships.

Here's a look at the 2009 Cardinal by position:

Outside Hitters

Only five Division I teams enter the 2009 season with a two-time All-American on their side. Only four boast a first-team All-American as their anchor. Just two have a two-time NCAA Final Four All-Tournament pick to guide them through the postseason.

Stanford earns a spot in each of those exclusive categories thanks to Alix Klineman - a 6-4 outside hitter who has the potential to be one of the most dominant players in the country this season. Klineman, who has led Stanford offensively the last two seasons with 4.12 kpg and 3.61 kps respectively, will be heavily relied upon to fuel the Cardinal offense. While dramatically improving her defensive game, she has stepped up offensively and put the team on her shoulders in key matches. A veteran of two Final Fours and numerous international events with the United States Women's National Team, Klineman has played volleyball at the highest level and brings an understanding of the game well beyond her years. This season, she will be looked to for her valuable court experience, her ability to provide a powerful attack from both the front and back row and her increasingly dominant block and defense.

Opposite Klineman, Stanford will have to fill a hole left by one of the best players to ever wear a Cardinal jersey - three-time first-team All-American Cynthia Barboza. However, head coach John Dunning has an array of quality candidates who will compete for that job, as well as one on the right side vacated by Erin Waller.

Stanford's potential outside hitting arsenal begins with fifth-year senior Alex Fisher. A key member of the program for the last four years, Fisher has spent the last two seasons as the team's first reserve on both the right and left sides. She is one of five players with Final Four court experience and will be valued for her versatility on the court, leadership skills and experience in all aspects of the program.

Junior Cassidy Lichtman could take on her third role in three years, as the 6-1 utility is a primary hitting candidate for 2009. Lichtman was a defensive specialist for the Cardinal on its march to the national championship match in 2007 and was the squad's primary setter during the run to Omaha last season. Lichtman's strongest suit however, may have yet to be revealed. Despite spending most of her time as a setter last year, she chipped in 1.22 kps at a .293 clip and ranked third on the team with 2.36 dps and 76 blocks. An All-Pac-10 honorable mention selection and one of the most versatile players in collegiate volleyball, Lichtman provides a valuable hitting option from either the right or left side.

Redshirt sophomore Stephanie Browne, who was recruited primarily as a middle blocker, has been building her game on the right side during the offseason and is looking to win the position this fall. One of the nation's top-20 recruits of 2007 according to PrepVolleyball, she brings a notable blocking ability and a keen presence at the net.

Hayley Spelman, a two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year out of Nevada, comes to The Farm as one of the most highly-touted freshmen in the country. Deemed the nation's No. 3 recruit by PrepVolleyball this year, the 6-6 opposite has the potential to play a key role right away. Her experience with the U.S. Junior National Team the past two years has given her the preparation necessary for the challenges of the next level of play.

Setters

Stanford returns both primary setters from last season - junior Cassidy Lichtman and senior Joanna Evans. Two of the squad's most experienced players, Lichtman and Evans will certainly play a key leadership role both on and off the court.

After beginning the year as a setter/hitter, Lichtman developed into Stanford's primary setter by the end of 2008 and was vital to the team's run to the national title match. Coming into the year with limited setting experience, Lichtman shined in the new role and garnered All-Pac-10 honorable mention. In 118 sets, Lichtman racked up 1,108 assists, and in matches with a one-setter offense, she posted an assists average that topped the Pac-10 and ranked second nationally. Also a talented hitter and defensive player, Lichtman remains a solid option to lead the Stanford offense for a second season.

Evans saw significant time as a back-row setter last year and remains the most experienced setter on the squad. This season, she will be valued for her familiarity with Stanford hitters and will be looked upon to lead the team to a fourth consecutive national title match.

Stanford also has a rookie on its roster with strong potential to immediately step in as the team's primary setter. Karissa Cook, a local standout from Santa Cruz, was a two-time Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League MVP and led her team to two CCS runner-up finishes. A member of the United States Junior National Team and a PrepVolleyball top-25 recruit, Cook is a smart setter with a strong commitment to improvement.

Middle Blockers

At one of its middle blocker positions, the Cardinal returns one of its most experienced players in senior Janet Okogbaa. The 6-3 Tampa, Fla. native was a valuable part of Stanford's lineup last season, starting all 35 matches. She posted a career-best 108 blocks and slammed 197 kills at one of the best single-season clips in school history. Her .378 mark ranked fourth in the Pac-10, and is the second-best of any conference player returning for 2009. This year, Okogbaa will be looked upon to provide leadership, a regular option in the middle, anchor a solid blocking effort and take the team to its fourth consecutive Final Four, in her native Tampa.

With the departure of Foluke Akinradewo, Stanford will undoubtedly have a significant hole to fill opposite Okogbaa. Dunning has a plethora of options however, as three capable athletes will vie for the position.

Stephanie Browne, a redshirt sophomore, is a talented player in the middle, who will be looking for a spot in the lineup after two years plagued by injury.

Redshirt freshman Jessica Walker returns from a year spent training and developing her game and is now ready to see her first action on the court. An incredible athlete, Walker was one of the top players in her high school class and has made huge strides in her first year training on The Farm.

Freshman Charlotte Brown will also contend for the spot, looking to make an impact in her first season. The 6-5 rookie was named one of PrepVolleyball's top-20 recruits and has spent time training with the British Women's National Team.

Liberos/Defensive Specialists

Stanford will once again be anchored in the back row by Gabi Ailes, a junior libero who has spent her first two seasons on The Farm putting up simply unparalleled defensive numbers. As a rookie in 2007, Ailes recorded more digs in a season (533) than any Stanford player before her, and last year, despite the new scoring format, she surpassed every single-season mark but her own (491). A leader on the court since her very first match, Ailes enters her first year as an upperclassman looking to step into the leadership void left by All-Americans Foluke Akinradewo and Cynthia Barboza. She will be relied upon to provide steady defense, a consistent serve and be a key communicator on the court.

With what will likely be a tall front line, strong defensive players will be relied upon to play an important role in the lineup this year. The Cardinal is armed with three of these players - sophomores Katherine Knox and Katherine Sebastian and newcomer Hannah Benjamin.

Knox and Sebastian combined to play in 24 sets last season, and have worked hard in the offseason to develop their defensive games. Both capable passers and servers, the squad's sophomore duo has the tools to benefit the team in the back row.

Benjamin, who spent the summer training with the U.S. Junior National Team, is a talented back row player who could make an impact on the court immediately.

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