Stanford has a ton of talented depth.
But don’t expect to see a lot of players on the floor when the Cardinal travels to Nashville to play Lipscomb on Friday and Tennessee State to open the NCAA women’s volleyball season.
No, the plan right now, Coach Kevin Hambly said, is for Stanford to use seven players.
And, “If someone struggles we have a lot of pretty good DS’s to help us out,” said Hambly, who is starting his sixth season on The Farm.
Washington was picked by Pac-12 coaches to repeat as champion and received eight first-place votes in their preseason poll. Stanford was second and had two first-place votes, and the next two teams, UCLA and Oregon, had a vote each.
Few teams in the nation will put forth a starting lineup as imposing as Stanford, a team bolstered by an experienced roster complemented by an interesting group of newcomers.
Start with national player-of-the-year candidate Kendall Kipp, a 6-foot-5 senior right side from Newport Beach who was one of three Stanford players on the all-Pac-12 team. Also back are 6-3 junior outside Caitie Baird and 6-foot sophomore setter Kami Miner.
Kipp, a VolleyballMag.com second-team All-American last season, was second to Baird with 397 kills (3.85/set), tied with Baird for the team lead with 31 aces, and was third with 99 blocks.
“I feel like we’ve made so much progress since last season, especially since the COVID season,” Kipp said. “Its really cool to see our progress and how hard everyone has worked and see all that coming together, finally.”
Baird, from Indianapolis, led the team with 479 kills (4.24/set), was fourth in blocks with 62 (10 solo) and was second only to libero Elena Oglivie with 243 digs. She, too, was a VBM second-team All-American.
“She’s got all the shots,” Hambly said.
Miner, a VBM fourth-teamer and national freshman-of-the-year finalist, was the Pac-12 freshman of the year. She’s from Redondo Beach and before college was known more as the daughter of former USC great and NBA standout Harold Miner. Last season, Miner averaged 11.51 assists — seventh in the NCAA — 2.32 digs and had 48 blocks.
“She’s a national-team type of kid,” Hambly said. “She’s really physical, really athletic, strong, she’s got the ability to be very, very good.”
Also back are 6-2 junior middle McKenna Vicini and 6-6 sophomore Sami Francis, who is making the move to middle from outside hitter.
Vicini, from Lexington, Kentucky, is relatively short for a middle but led the team with 147 blocks (10 solo) and 1.3/set, which put her 21st in the NCAA. She also averaged 1.24 kills.
Hambly said Francis, from San Diego, is a better fit at middle. Last season, she had 251 kills, 2.76/set and 50 blocks. She’ll replace Stanford’s only significant loss, the graduated Holly Campbell (181 kills, 110 blocks). Campbell, who played four years at Stanford, had another season, but Hambly said she has a great job and was ready to move on.
Also returning is Oglivie, a 5-10 Hawaiian, who led the team with 451 digs (4.38/set) and had 25 aces.
The other outside is the only newcomer to break the lineup, freshman Elia Rubin.
“She’s really, really talented,” Hambly said. “She can ball.”
Rubin, from Brentwood, California, was the VolleyballMag.com national high school player of the year and a member of the VBM Fab 50.
There are two backup setters, senior Selina Xu and junior Malia Tufuga. Also returning are two outside hitters in senior Natalie Berty and sophomore Maiya Tillman, junior middle Annabelle Smith and junior DS Alex Lougeay.
Unexpected large incoming class
The incoming class features five freshmen and a graduate-student transfer.
“There was no intention of having six,” Hambly said. “Three of them we kind of were gifted a little bit. We only had one scholarship for that class, and we wanted a pass-hitter, and I thought Rubin was the best six-rotation pass-hitter. She’s very similar to (former Stanford outside) Megan McClure in her game. Jumps a little higher and hits a little harder. We’ll see if she competes the same way. It sure seems like she does.”
He wasn’t counting on Line Andersson, a 5-11 outside from Jonkoping, Sweden. But she was being recruited by Stanford’s beach program “and she said she was interested in playing both,” Hambly said. “She turned down money from beach to play both so she could walk on.”
Then there’s Christina Armoni, a 5-10 DS from Chalkida, Greece.
She calls me and says, ‘I got into school on my own, can I come?’ ”
Emily Teehan is the grad transfer. A 6-foot outside from Toronto, she played three of the last four years at Columbia (the Ivy League had no 2020 season), got into Stanford on her own, much like Madeleine Gates a few years ago, and then asked Hambly if she could join the program. Gates, you may recall, came from UCLA and then started at middle for the Stanford team that won the 2019 NCAA title. Teehan was second in kills for Columbia last season with 194.
“Those guys kind of fell in our lap,” Hambly said. “Happy to have them, especially after COVID and the things we’ve gone through. The more bodies the better, and it’ll make for some great competition, and we get some experience on the outside in Teehan and talent from the other kids.”
That group also includes Manhattan Beach product Kelly Belardi, a setter who is also will play beach, and Anna Pringle, a DS from La Jolla.
Stanford onbiously has talented depth at every position.
“We do. That’s what it takes to be a championship team,” Kipp said. “Depth, because every day you’re playing against a good team in practice. If you have a good team on the other side of the net, it’s like playing a match every day in practice. And then obviously with injuries as the season goes on, it’s super important to have good depth.”
Health is a key
Indeed, because one big key for Stanford is staying healthy. Since the Cardinal won the 2016, 2018 and 2019 NCAA titles, it has had quite a few injuries, including last year when three concussions in a row really set the team back.
Stanford, which finished 19-11 overall (13-7 Pac-12) was cruising into late October, improving to 12-5, 7-2 with a five-set win at Washington State. But that match was also the start of a stretch where Miner got hit in the head, as Kipp two days later at Washington. Then Lougeay got concussed in practice. What’s more, Xu, filling in for Miner, sprained her ankle.
Stanford lost three in a row and four of five, including back-to-back losses at Arizona and Arizona State. That stretch likely cost the Cardinal a top-16 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“It took us awhile to get back,” Hambly said.
Stanford was sent to Minnesota for the NCAA Tournament, where it beat Iowa State in four but then got swept by the home team.
“I never felt, because of our lack of training time, that we were legit,” Hambly said.
Hiring an entire new staff
There were two challenges, then, heading into the spring. While Stanford had few on-court losses, Hambly, for the first time, had to replace his entire coaching staff. Assistant coach Gary Mano moved on. His other assistant, Courtney Thompson, decided coaching wasn’t for her. Even his wife, Mary, Stanford’s director of operations, left the staff to spend more time with their two children.
“Hiring sucks, and it’s a lot of work,” Hambly said. “I think I interviewed 65 people. At the final four I interviewed 25. But I looked at it like an opportunity. I’m an old guy who’s not very social, I don’t go out and party or hang out with coaches, so I looked at it like an opportunity to get to know all these young coaches. If anyone recommended somebody, I talked to them. I learned a lot, got to meet some great people, and have some future candidates.”
The new assistants are Alex Dunphy and Mike Johnson, Shauna Smith is the director of ops, and Gretchen Reinert is a volunteer assistant.
Dunphy spent the last two seasons at Auburn. The daughter of Pepperdine coaching legend Marv Dunphy, she played USC and also coached there.
“I wasn’t looking to leave, but when this opportunity presented itself I was excited to check it out,” Dunphy said. “I have a lot of respect for Kevin, and it was cool to be considered.”
Hambly said: “Alex, she’s been around the game her whole life. She came over for dinner, and she and my kids were talking about being coaches’ kids. It was pretty interesting.”
Johnson was the head coach at Notre Dame for four seasons. He previously has been the head coach at Austin Peay and Xavier and was an assistant at Notre Dame to Jim McLaughlin and was promoted when McLaughlin retired.
“I think having been a head coach gave me insight into some of the difficulties that head coaches face,” Johnson said. “There are certain challenges I found being a head coach that maybe I didn’t know about when I was an assistant the first time. I view it as my job to do what can I do to help him and how can I support and be the very best I can for him and the players.”
Reinert was a DS/libero and played beach at Santa Clara for Erin Lindsey, who was an assistant to Hambly when they were at Illinois, and then played indoors last season for BYU.
“They have come in from day one and worked hard and tried to transform this program,” Kipp said. “Mike and Gretchen have been so great with the passers. I feel like I’ve gotten so much better this spring. They didn’t take any adjustment period. They just came in and were ready to go.”
Hambly said Stanford’s spring practice was outstanding and a good launching point into this season.
“We’re playing different volleyball than we had,” he said. “We understand how to play defense, we understand all the things we’re talking about, the light bulb has gone off, and we’re a whole lot better.”
Stanford, No. 14 in the preseason AVCA coaches poll, spends the first week of the season in the South, first for those two matches in Nashville before heading to Florida on Tuesday. Then the Cardinal comes home for AVCA preseason No. 2 Texas before heading to No. 5 Minnesota to play the Gophers and Penn State.
And the nonconference season finishes with a bang, against two of last year’s national semifinalists when Stanford goes to top-ranked Nebraska then comes home to play No. 4 Louisville.
“We had an incredible culture, it’s a good group, and they get along and all that, but we haven’t truly been battle-tested to know,” Hambly said. “That’s the part I don’t know.
“I feel like we’re more equipped to actually play now. We understand how we want to play, and we can defend and we can pass, we can do all those things we haven’t done and couldn’t do last year. We’ve gotten a lot better but the intangibles haven’t had a chance to be revealed.”
The Pac-12 usually takes care of that, but …
“Not until the tournament, when your season’s on the line, do you know what the intangibles are,” Hambly said. “You think you have some stuff, but we won’t really know until we’re in that moment.”