Flying Under The Radar
It's not very often that the Stanford women's volleyball team starts a season as a bit of an underdog. With six NCAA titles, 18 Final Four appearances, 16 Conference crowns and a slew of All-Americans, the Cardinal is almost always a favorite to compete for a national championship.
This year, the buzz was a little different. After losing three All-Americans to graduation, including Volleyball Magazine Player of the Year Alix Klineman and setter Cassidy Lichtman, from a team that went 27-4 in 2010, Stanford was thought to be in a rebuilding mode. That they had no returning All-Americans, eight underclassmen and more than half of their offensive firepower was gone, left some doubts about how good this Stanford team could be.
As it turns out, they're going to be just fine, thanks in part to the steady hands and calming presence of junior setter Karissa Cook.
A year ago, Cook was sharing setting duties with Lichtman in Stanford's 6-2 offense. This season she is the sole setter in a new 5-1 lineup, and with the change, Stanford has climbed to No. 3 in the national polls.
"I think Karissa has always felt inside that she was destined maybe, or at least very interested in running a five-one offense," Stanford head coach John Dunning said. "It is her nature. She has the ability to do it at the highest level. She is excited about it and doing great."
In the 6-2 offense, Cook would rotate out of the game when she came to the front row, leaving Stanford with three hitters up front at all times. In the new 5-1, Cook is always on the floor, which has helped raise her game.
"Switching to the 5-1 has been great, mostly because I'm able to be on the court the whole time," Cook said. "I get to be in the flow of the game the entire match without any interruptions. I also have more fun because I get to block and be an offensive setter at the net and try to score some points on my own."
With more than half of the Cardinal roster consisting of freshmen and sophomores, Cook has had to adjust to the new offense, while also taking on a greater leadership role. If that means added pressure, she hasn't experienced it.
"Maybe there should be, but I haven't really felt it," Cook said. "There's always some pressure putting on the Stanford jersey and walking onto the court no matter where you are or what position you're playing. Last year I got way more nervous and more anxious when I was on the bench during rotations than when I was in the game. It's actually been a bit easier this year."
Cook is a volleyball lifer. With a mother who played in college and a father who coached at the collegiate level, Cook and her brother Brian, who also plays at Stanford, grew up around the game. Her uncle John is the head coach at Nebraska and cousin Lauren plays for the Cornhuskers. To say the Cooks are a volleyball family would be an understatement.
"Volleyball is such an addicting sport," the Santa Cruz native said. "Once you get over the learning curve and learn to love it, it's really hard to stop playing. Having the ball around the house really helped."
Cook was a two-sport athlete, soccer and volleyball, all the way into eighth grade before making the decision to focus on one. In the end, it wasn't a hard choice.
"You get to a level where you have to choose one or just won't have a life," she said. "I was going to soccer practice one day and I was thinking I'm going to play soccer forever and then I had volleyball practice the next day and I said 'No way, volleyball is my first love.' It wasn't until I had to make the choice before I realized how much I loved it."
Despite being a player and team in transition, Cook has loved the game even more this season. The unknown has delivered great competition and energy throughout the roster.
"We have a lot of people vying to take over a star spot or trying to take over the tag of key hitter," Cook said. "I think it's fun watching everyone try to fill out their new roles. You never know what you're going to get and that kind of mystery has really made it exciting. I feel like there's a lot of opportunity with our team and there's a lot of room to grow. It's a combination of a lot of excitement, a lot effort in every play and also the mysterious future of our team that makes it very exciting to me."
The hitters aren't the only ones trying to make an impression. Cook has years of experience as a setter, but being the only setter in the lineup means she also has to play a role as a blocker and offensive player in the front row. It does take time to adjust.
"That is something that you have to do, like anything else in sports," Dunning said. "She didn't get to do it in her first two years, so everyday she sees situations and learns how to make choices based upon the information she's getting from her teammates and her opponents. I think she's doing great and I think this is an area where she is really focused and going to get a lot better."
Cook and the Cardinal will get a chance to test their newfound energy and skills against three of the best teams in the country this weekend in Palo Alto. Stanford hosts No. 2 Penn State, No. 7 Florida and No. 10 Texas in the Nike Volleyball Big Four Classic.
"The better your competition the better your own play is going to get," Cook said. "When you get this kind of competition coming to town you know they're going to bring it, and in a way it kind of lets you go after it and give it all you've got. It's all out volleyball and it's going to be really cool for the fans."
Even though Stanford finds itself ranked in the top three in the country, one spot back of four-time defending national champion Penn State, it still feels like they are flying under the radar. And that's always a dangerous proposition.
"I almost look at us as an underdog team," Cook said. "We didn't start the season No. 1 or anything. I don't think we expected being No. 3 right now given what we gave up in our graduating class. I think we have so much room to improve in every single level of the game. We still make a lot of goofy errors and have some weird plays going on, but once we eliminate all of those I think we're going to be very, very good. I think we're going to surprise a lot of teams."