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W. Volleyball: Stanford ‘fired up’ as NCAA Tournament play begins

“We’re fired up, we’re confident, and we’re ready to go to war with teams.” Senior setter Karissa Cook’s quote perfectly sums up the attitude of the No. 2 Stanford women’s volleyball team, whose bid for its seventh NCAA title begins on Friday against Jackson State.

The week was a big one for the team, as coach John Dunning earned his fourth Pac-12 Coach of the Year honor, while four Cardinal players were named to the 14-player All-Pac-12 team: junior middle blocker Carly Wopat and three freshmen, middle blocker Inky Ajanaku and outside hitters Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard. Junior opposite Rachel Williams was also selected as an honorable mention pick to the All-Pac-12 team, while Ajanaku, Burgess, Howard and setter Madi Bugg were named to the All-Freshman team.

The numerous accolades awarded to the team were a perfect way to cap off an impressive regular season, but the Cardinal has its eyes set on a loftier prize: a national title.

The Cardinal (27-3) will open its 2012 title quest against the Jackson State Lady Tigers (24-11). Jackson State won the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) for the second straight year after going undefeated in conference play, and are riding a 22-match winning streak.

Jackson State features a dynamic offensive attack led by senior outside hitter Christine Edwards, who is in the top 50 in the nation with 4.12 kills per set. The senior dominated in the SWAC tournament, posting 28 kills in the final to secure Jackson State’s spot in the NCAA Tournament. She was named the SWAC Tournament MVP, and will be a force to be reckoned with for the Cardinal.

Jackson State is especially powerful off the serve, leading the nation with 2.15 aces per set. Edwards also leads the nation in that category, averaging almost an ace each set. She recorded 118 aces during the season, over 40 more than her closest competitor.

The Lady Tigers are also led on offense by junior outside hitter Paige Williams, who was second on the team with 2.53 kills per game and was named to the All-SWAC Tournament Team. Freshman middle blocker Mikayla Rolle also had an impressive season, averaging over a block a set and posting 10 kills and seven blocks in her last match.

If the Cardinal gets past Jackson State, it will play the winner of No. 17 Western Kentucky Lady Toppers (32-3) and Loyola Marymount Lions (18-12), who face off at 5:30 p.m. in Maples Pavilion.

The Lady Toppers won the Sun Belt Conference in dominant fashion, going undefeated throughout the season and entering the tournament on a 24-game winning streak. They have not lost a match since Sept. 8, when they played against Ohio State.

Western Kentucky features a balanced offensive attack, in which four players average over two kills a set. The setter for the Lady Toppers, junior Melanie Stutsman, is No. 20 in the nation with 11.35 assists per set.

The Lions snuck into the tournament with an at-large bid despite finishing just sixth in the WCC. They did close their season on a high note, however, winning five of their last seven games.

The Lions are led on offense by the dynamic attacking duo of junior outside hitter Kathleen Luft and sophomore middle blocker Litara Keil. Luft finished the season averaging 4.14 kills per set, as well as 1.86 digs per set, while Keil contributed 3.13 kills, 1.32 digs and 1.04 blocks per set.

The winner of Stanford-Jackson State and Western Kentucky-Loyola Marymount will face off at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Maples, with the winner proceeding to the regional semifinals in Berkeley.

If Stanford makes it to Berkeley, they are likely to face either Cal, who will have home court but has been swept by Stanford twice this year, or No. 15 Iowa State. Both could prove to be tough matchups, but the largest obstacle potentially standing in the way of the Cardinal’s road to the Final Four is No. 7 UCLA, the second seed in the region.

Stanford has beaten the Bruins twice this season, but both were close contests. If the Cardinal reaches the regional final and meets the Bruins there, expect the reigning national champs to not go down without a fight.

The other tough out in the Berkeley regional is Big East champ No. 10 Louisville, who would love to get to the Final Four and play in front of its home crowd.

The winner of the Berkeley regional will face the winner of the Austin regional, which features two very strong teams in No. 3 Texas and No. 6 USC. The Trojans are one of just three teams to hand Stanford a loss this season.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 1 Penn State, which handed Stanford its second loss of the season, travels through the West Lafayette regional on the road to the Final Four, with its highest ranked potential opponent being No. 8 Minnesota. The Nittany Lions are ranked first in the nation and have won four out of the last five national championships.

The Omaha regional should be a dogfight, with two very strong teams in No. 5 Oregon and No. 4 Nebraska, as well as No. 13 Washington, No. 12 BYU, and Hawaii, the third team to beat Stanford this season.

Stanford tips off at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, around the time Stanford Football’s Pac-12 Championship Game should end, as it attempts to end its season with a national championship.

About Anders Mikkelsen