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November 28, 2023
August 24, 2023
There they are, all six of them proudly shown on a publicity graphic, all six Stanford starters on the preseason Pac-12 team.
Loaded and on a mission.
That’s because the stunning sting of the end of the 2022 season still looms large for the Cardinal, which not only lost to San Diego in the regional final, but lost in five on its home court.
Stanford, the Pac-12 champion, led two sets to one and was up 23-22 in the fourth set, oh so close to advancing to the NCAA national semifinals.
But San Diego won the fourth 25-22.
And in the fifth, the Toreros broke a 9-9 tie by scoring the last six points.
San Diego, the 2022 team of destiny, went on to Omaha.
Stanford players walked back to their dorms and apartments looking for answers.
The six are redshirt senior outside Caitie Baird, junior middle Sami Francis, fifth-year right side Kendall Kipp, junior setter Kami Miner, senior libero Elena Olglive and sophomore outside Elia Rubin.
The only starter not on the list is redshirt-senior middle McKenna Vicini, who led Stanford in blocks last year with 40 more than Kipp. And Vicini led the Pac-12 in hitting percentage (.427).
Kipp, Miner and Oglivie might be the three best players at their respective positions in the nation; Kipp and Miner for sure; you could argue a couple of others are right up there with Oglivie. But she’s elite.
“They’re special players and they’re special people and they make our team better,” Baird said. “I’m lucky to be on the same side of the net as them. In practice it’s never fun being on the opposite side. They make you work for every point.”
Pound for pound, when healthy — and that was a problem in 2022 — Stanford is the team to beat this NCAA volleyball season.
“I would agree,” Rubin said.
Rubin went through her freshman season relatively unscathed, although she quickly displayed her less-than-straight pinkie that she broke last year. Kipp has had concussions, Francis was out for a while.
The 6-foot Miner, a VolleyballMag.com second-team All-American last season, has stayed healthy throughout her first two years as she’s established herself as the next great American setter after the three at the top, Olympians Jordyn Poulter and Micha Hancock and Lauren Carlini.
She led the Pac-12 in assists last season with 11.42/set, had 22 aces, 92 kills, 59 blocks and averaged 2.1 digs/set.
“Amazing setter. She makes ridiculous balls look so easy,” Oglivie said.
Miner is one of a handful of current NCAA standouts whose fathers were NBA players. Her father, Harold, was a star at USC and was a two-time NBA dunk champion.
Among the others in today’s game are Asjia O’Neal at Texas (Jermaine O’Neal) and teammate Madisen Skinner (Brian Skinner) and Wisconsin’s Anna Smrek (Michael Smrek) and Carter Booth (Calvin Booth). Lorenzo Orr, who had a long European pro career and whose daughter, Kennedi, is a junior at Nebraska, was a teammate of Miner’s at USC. And there have been plenty more with an entire pipeline of more to come.
Rubin gushed when talking about Miner’s athleticism and ability to adjust set speeds and heights, especially considering how different she and the other outside, the 6-3 Baird, jump and attack.
“Seriously, every single day in practice, I don’t even know how to describe it. Some balls she sets, it’s insane,” Rubin said.
Miner, who grew up in Redondo Beach but never embraced beach volleyball, has spent plenty of time in the USA gym. Adjusting to different hitters takes work, but “for me it was all about establishing a feedback loop for both of them,” Miner said.
“They both have such big windows, so they can pick sets off at a lot of different points. So having that feedback loop about where they feel they can score the most and have the most range, for me that was the most important thing.”
The 6-5 Kipp, a product of Newport Beach who starts her fifth year in Palo Alto, was a VolleyballMag.com first-team All-American and the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
“She’s an amazing athlete,” Oglivie said, “and she has such a passion for the game and fire and you can see it in how excited she gets.”
Kipp led Stanford in kills (528, 4.51/set, second only to USC’s Skylar Fields in the Pac-12), had a team-high 43 aces (fourth in the Pac-12), and had 113 blocks. Kipp was a key reserve as a freshman when Stanford won the 2019 title.
“She brings such competitiveness and focus to our practices,” Rubin said. “She really holds all of us accountable.”
Oglivie, the 5-10 product out of Honolulu, was the 2022 Pac-12 Libero of the Year and a VBM third-team All-American. She averaged 4.42 digs, tops in the Pac-12, and had 24 aces. She’s worked hard at becoming a better setter.
Francis, 6-6 and by all accounts primed for her best season, played in just 17 matches last season. The product of La Jolla Country Day and San Diego averaged 1.98 kills, hit .375 and had 92 blocks, a team-leading 1.46.set, second only to Washington State All-American Magda Jehlarova in the Pac-12 last season.
Baird is from Indianapolis. She made the VBM second All-American team after getting 385 kills (3.32/set), 31 aces and 70 blocks. She redshirted her first year at Stanford in 2019, so was on the sidelines for the NCAA title run.
Rubin was the 2021 VolleyballMag.com national high school player of the year, but the 6-1 product of Marymount High School in Los Angeles wasn’t overly confident when she arrived in Palo Alto.
But, “I knew she was going to be really good,” Miner said.
“I feel like I learned the sport of volleyball in such a new way. From the beginning of the year to the end, I saw so much improvement,” Rubin said. “You could take that like I was better than I thought I was.”
Rubin laughed out loud at herself.
“I didn’t think there was a lot I was going to learn in college, that I had reached that point and I was so wrong about that. That was awesome.”
She laughed again.
“That was the coolest part of it, seeing how much I could expand my game in so short of a time. And three weeks in I was playing in a top-five match and I surprised myself to see that I could hold my own.”
And then some. She was a five-time Pac-12 Freshman of the Week last season, third in kills (3.15/set) for Stanford and second in digs (2.36) and aces (34).
“Playing in the gym with the highest level of competitors, there’s nothing better than that,” Rubin said. “That’s something really cool about our gym specifically, that you can look at anyone around you and they’re just elevating my game.”
Most every good volleyball team will tell you how much all the players like each other, how they’ve become each other’s best friends and how they do everything together.
Stanford has reinforced that.
For example, Miner, Francis, Oglivie, junior DS Taylor Beaven and former teammates Leilah Smith and Maiya Tillman all lived together.
“We were really close before, but living in a house with six of my best friends made us even closer and enabled us to have those really frank conversations,” Miner said.
And it’s not that their teammates were left out.
“We’re all so close. At this point we’re like siblings. It’s like the relationship I have with my brother that I have with those girls. It’s like a little family. We would have the whole team over to the house all the time.”
Miner did the majority of the cooking. Francis was the baker.
But after last spring, they moved back to campus.
“We were always going to spend our senior year back on campus,” Miner said. “Just to be part of the great vibes that are here on campus. And it’s kind of a hassle to commute and the upkeep is a lot for a house that big.”
The ultimate team bonding comes every four years, when NCAA programs can take an international trip. In the case of Stanford, it was this past June, when the Cardinal explored and played volleyball in Istanbul, Türkiye; Prague, Czech Republic, and Maribor, Slovenia.
Here’s what makes Stanford so different: Most of the players — including incoming freshmen Julia Blyashov, Jordyn Harvey, Koko Kirsch and Ipar Kurt (who is from Istanbul) — all traveled separately and met in Europe.
Baird, Kipp and Vicini stayed behind to participate in Stanford’s graduation and caught up with everyone in Prague. And two former Stanford players, who never got a chance to make an international trip — Natalie Berty and Selina Xu — went on the tour.
“It was a blast,” said Baird, who said the team took advantage of integrating the incoming freshmen in a special way.
By the way, all of those freshmen could see some action, especially early. Blyashov is a 6-3 outside from Carlsbad, California; Kirsh is a DS from Trabuco Canyon, California; Harvey is a 6-1 right side from Salt Lake City; and Kurt is a 6-2 outside.
Stanford went 27-5 last season, 19-1 in the Pac-12. Three of those losses were to Texas, Penn State and Louisville early, and then at Oregon in late September. They were riding a 21-match winning streak after beating Houston in the third round of the NCAA Tournament before playing San Diego.
The schedule this year is typically brutal. Stanford plays anyone and everyone.
The Cardinal starts school later than most because Stanford is on the quarter system, so every August, early September, coach Kevin Hambly loads up the pre-conference schedule with interesting trips and all the top opponents.
Stanford starts in Colorado, where it plays at Northern Colorado of the Big Sky on Friday and at the Mountain West’s Colorado State on Saturday. Then they’re home for No. 11 Florida of the SEC, and then it’s on to No. 1 Texas of the Big 12 in the most anticipated pre-conference match of the season.
Two days later Stanford goes to No. 23 Rice of the American Athletic Conference before returning home for a weekend in which it plays No. 7 Minnesota and No. 14 Ohio State of the Big Ten. And before the final Pac-12 season begins, Stanford is home for No. 5 Nebraska of the Big Ten and goes to No. 4 Louisville of the ACC.
“Kevin loves it, and we all love it, too,” Francis said.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” Miner said.
Back to last December 10 after that loss to San Diego.
“We got back to the locker room and everyone was crying and it was really sad and everyone was super frustrated,” Miner said. “And everyone was like I want to get in the gym tomorrow and start practicing. I can’t believe that we’re gonna have to wait however many months that is, from December to August.”
Francis: “There were no words.”
“We missed our opportunity. It was really disappointing. But it motivated us and there’s more of a sense of urgency.”
“It was a wake-up call,” Oglivie said.
“It was a wake-up call,” Francis echoed.
“I think, for us, it’s going to end up being kind of a blessing in disguise. It’s given us that kind of chip on our shoulder that this group really needs in order to be very successful. I’m excited and we’re all really excited to see what we can do with that added motivation and knowing how it feels to be so close and come up a little bit short.”
Baird gets the last word as Stanford heads to Colorado.
“I have full faith in this team that we can go all the way,” Baird said. “We have everyone returning from last year and we added some incredible pieces to the mix. It’s going to be a blast and it’s already been fun in practices and competing with each other and pushing each other to get better every day.
“It’s going to be so much fun for us and we’re ready to get after it and see where we stand.”