Why Stanford Can Win the National Title in 2017

  0 Derek Johnson | August 21st, 2017 | College - Women's Indoor, Pac 12

Today is the final Monday left before the start of the NCAA Women’s Division I Volleyball season. To countdown the season, VolleyMob began a series over the course of the final eight weeks, where we countdown the top eight teams in our ‘Bit-Too-Eary Preseason Poll’ (which has since been updated) and explain why their fans should have high hopes for their national title chances. So, with the season beginning later this week, we finish off the list with the defending National Champion Stanford Cardinal.

Bit-Too-Early Top 25:

It’s easy to find the answer of why a team can win a National Championship after they just proved they could do it. That’s exactly where we began with the Stanford Cardinal, who come into 2017 as the defending champion after a 27-7 season culminated with a team that got red-hot in the NCAA Tournament en route to head coach John Dunning‘s fifth title. Not everything is clear-cut for Stanford to repeat though, as Dunning retired, joining star Inky Ajanaku as departures from last year’s team. Still, they have great depth and talent to go along with youth that has experienced Division I volleyball at its highest stakes. It won’t be an open path to repeating, but it will be one that Stanford has a great shot at doing.

If Stanford is to accomplish back-to-back titles, it would likely be due to the evolution of their large freshmen class into even more dynamic sophomores. In total, the Cardinal had seven freshmen last season; notably the 6’6″ pair of outside hitter Kathryn Plummer and middle blocker Audriana Fitzmorris, who were named to the 2016 AVCA All-American First-Team and Honorable Mention team, respectively. They should star even more in year two, as should 2016 Pac-12 Honorable Mention libero Morgan Hentz and setter Jenna Gray, who are sophomores as well. All four were integral pieces in the championship run for Stanford in 2016, and assuming they all take a solid freshman to sophomore year jump, Stanford should post a better regular season and set themselves up for another strong postseason run.

Four starters and the libero return for Stanford, who also brings back 11 letterwinners. They tacked on a four-women recruiting class, led by Meghan McClure, a 2017 Under Armour Second-Team All-American. They have skilled depth, even if some of it is unproven. They will be sure to utilize their strength in numbers over the course of the season, which should also add to a stronger regular season that would put them in a nice position to repeat.

Most importantly for Stanford to repeat will be leadership. Middle blocker Inky Ajanaku went beyond being one of the best players in the nation as she led a young team to a National Championship. That could come from any of the established youngsters or it could come from a senior like right side Merete Lutz, who was a 2016 AVCA Third-Team All-American. If that leadership develops, they have everything else they need to win a National Championship, as they proved in 2016.

Stanford has everything you need from a roster standpoint to win a National Championship as well. They have a setter who was a highly-regarded recruit and made a big impact in 2016. They have all the size you could want up front with Plummer (6’6″), Fitzmorris (6’6″) and Lutz (6’8″) in addition to a handful of others who stand between 6’2″ and 6’4″. They have the ‘littles’ so to speak with Hentz in the back and freshman Kate Formico coming in with some hype. They should remain one of the best blocking teams in the country, and if the attack remains steady or even increases, they should be more than fine.

The Pac-12 should create an interesting avenue for Stanford, who has to deal with Washington at the top. Both teams could very well wind up as top-four seeds and hosts leading up to the Final Four just as Minnesota and Nebraska did in the Big Ten last season. However, if both don’t have the clear separation that the two Big Ten schools had last season, the fight between Stanford and Washington could determine one spot of hosting the Sweet 16/Elite Eight, which would weigh heavily on title chances. Stanford also plays Penn State twice in the non-conference, so they will have plenty of chances to impress the NCAA Tournament committee and get a nice path that sets themselves up for another title run.

It’s pretty straight forward with why Stanford can win the National Championship in 2017: they’ve shown the ability to do it before and now have a young roster that has matured another year. They have players who haven’t emerged but came in with high expectations. When you mix that (both for depth and the potential of a budding star) with the key names returning to the fold and another strong recruiting class, the Cardinal will have a chance to do what Nebraska could not and repeat as National Champions in 2017.

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