In an unlikely situation, overlooked by most coming into the 2016 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament, the Stanford Cardinals took the underdog route to collegiate glory.
After over a decade drought from winning a title, the Cardinals were able to pick up head coach John Dunning’s fifth national title, for his final season as a coach. The squad had a close run at the title three consecutive seasons (2006, 2007, 2008) but a strong Nebraska team stood in their way in 2006, while Penn State claimed the title the next two – even going so far to take four straight national titles. With his five national titles (Pacific – 1985 and 1986, Stanford – 2001, 2004 and 2016) Dunning is ranked at second most national titles in NCAA Division I history. In his final season with the squad, he was also named the AVCA’s National Coach of the Year.
In 2004, Dunning explained that when you take a match off a team you weren’t expecting to win against, you get a team that doesn’t think they are all that good to believe.
“If you just believe in yourself and keep going and keep pushing, your’re going to eventually overcome these obstacles,” said Inky Ajanaku, senior in 2016.
Dunning explained that the 2016 season looked like a gray puzzle that he and his coaching staff had to put together, with six freshmen coming in and Ajanaku making her comeback. With these variables in place, it could be difficult to know what to do. The beginning of the 2016 season had some learning curve for not only the coaching staff but the players as well, having six freshman and six sophomores on the squad, it was all about figuring out how they all worked together. This began with all players on the court, at the beginning of the season, not playing a position that they did the previous season.
Their season started with a five set loss to an understated San Diego team, that showed they were a force to be reckoned with that season. The Cardinals looked at four top-ranked Big Ten squads with their next string of matches, where they won three of the four, including #3 Minnesota.
“We had to reinvent ourselves and found out that our potential was limitless,” proclaimed Ajanaku.
Building up confidence in each other week by week, always being the team that was going to improve each week, knowing they needed or could be better than they were. These things helped to keep the team in the right mindset, keeping them enjoying each other and the game.
“Every match, even every set we began to get better,” said Dunning.
The entire team began to buy into the system, with the bench helping to carry the momentum for the six players on the court leading into the national tournament.
Road to the National Championship
- Round 1 – Denver (3-0)
- Round 2 – Boise State (3-0)
- Regional – Florida State (3-1)
- Regional Final – Wisconsin (3-2)
- Semifinals – Minnesota (3-1)
- Finals – Texas (3-1)
“Guys, you are never going to forget this game,” said Ajanaku.
The season was long and far from perfect for the Cardinals, but along the way the team trusted each other, put in the hard work and were able to perform in the right moments to take home a national title.
The Cardinals will look to defend their 2016 at the 2017 NCAA Tournament that will take place from December 14-16 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.