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Despite loss of Ajanaku, yin-yang of youth and experience provide hope for Cardinal

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When she was at a doctor’s appointment back in June, Madi Bugg got a call from her teammate Inky Ajanaku. Earlier, Ajanaku had told her teammates that she hurt her knee while playing in the Pan American Cup with the U.S. National Team, but Bugg did not know the severity of the injury and how bad the forthcoming news would be.

She called Ajanaku back 15 minutes later, heard the news that Inky had torn her right ACL and started to cry.

KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/stanfordphoto.com
The Cardinal will have to play without star middle blocker Inky Ajanaku (12). In 2014 Ajanaku notched a team-best 438 kills and hit .428. (KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/stanfordphoto.com)

The U.S. women’s national volleyball team was just points away from clinching a win in the fourth set of a match at the Pan American Cup in Lima, Peru. Ajanaku, who had been given more playing time due to an injury to another middle blocker on the team, went for a slide. She felt something in her right knee shift, but at the time didn’t think it was too severe.

A day later, Ajanaku traveled back to California and, joined by head coach John Dunning and associate head coach Denise Corlett, went to Stanford Hospital, where she found out the extent of the injury.

“I would like to say my mind quickly turned to being optimistic, but it didn’t. I was still in a little bit of shock,” Ajanaku said. “I was angry and upset. And obviously Madi could tell by my voice on the phone.”

With that phone call, the reins of the team for the 2015 season were essentially passed on. The 2014 Volleyball Magazine Player of the Year and two-time First Team All-American was gone, and setter Madi Bugg took a lot more weight on her shoulders.

“I called my mom and my dad [after getting off the phone with Ajanaku], and my dad said, ‘You gotta find your Tom Brady,’ your third-string quarterback that comes in and just takes over,” Bugg said.

It’s obvious that Ajanaku is irreplaceable, but especially so considering how much the Cardinal offense revolved around its middles in 2014. Ajanaku had 806 attacks in 126 sets last season, averaging almost two attacks per set more than she had in her freshman and sophomore seasons.

Although junior middle blocker Merete Lutz solidified her place in the Stanford rotation in her first year of collegiate play — and in the process earned Second Team All-America honors after hitting .458 on the season (good for third in the nation) — the Cardinal have been forced to shift their offensive strategy.

In fact, Dunning said that teams won’t even know how to play against them early in the season because of the different approach they’ll have in 2015.

That’s not to say this Stanford team can’t make a deep run this season. The Cardinal appeared at No. 2 in the AVCA preseason coaches’ poll — only behind the vaunted Penn State, who has knocked them out of the postseason for two years in a row. The ranking is a credit to the current makeup of the roster, as four starters return from last season’s Final Four team and a talented new recruiting class of six look to make an impact.

KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/stanfordphoto.com
AVCA First Team All-American and Pac-12 Setter of the Year Madi Bugg (22) is part of the Cardinal’s stellar senior class, which helped lead the Cardinal to its 19th Final Four appearance last season. As a setter, she will have to step up this season with the loss of middle blocker Inky Ajanaku to an ACL injury. (KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/stanfordphoto.com)

Ajanaku, who has been attending practices as she goes through rehab, Lutz and Bugg all noted that the energy in preseason practices has been elevated because of the freshmen, who have already been making waves.

“I’ve been really impressed with how hard they’ve worked and how able to focus they are because my class in particular struggled with that coming in, and they’re all such grinders,” Bugg said. “I really love all of them as people, which matters more to me than how good they are at volleyball especially because they’re going to get so much better over the next four years.”

6-foot-3 opposite hitter Hayley Hodson, who played on the U.S. national team alongside Ajanaku at the Pan Am Cup, leads the class as the nation’s top recruit and figures to get a lot of playing time filling the role vacated by 2015 graduate Morgan Boukather.

Freshmen competitors for the open middle blocker spot are Tami Alade, from Alberta, Canada, Courtney Bowen, a Brooklyn native who lettered in five sports in high school, and Alexis Froistad, from Aromas, California.

Sophomore Sarah Benjamin will compete against freshmen Payton Chang and Halland McKenna for the open libero spot. It’s yet another tough set of shoes to fill: those vacated by Kyle Gilbert, who finished her career with the second-most digs in program history.

Bugg and outside hitters Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard, seniors, will play a big role in acclimating the freshmen quickly, just as they took up starting spots back in their freshman year in 2012. Bugg said that all of the seniors have already begun to feel like “mother hens.”

And Ajanaku will be there too, as she has already had an impact from the sideline.

“My role really hasn’t changed that much besides the fact that I’m not on the court,” she said.

“We have three groups on our team: We have the four seniors, we have the sophomore and junior classes and we have the freshman class,” Dunning said. “The role of the older players and their leadership really matters, but they’re really really up to it. They’re very experienced and very determined people.”

As has been customary in recent years, the Cardinal will be tested early, this time with three top-10 ranked opponents in their first six games. After welcoming Texas A&M and Minnesota to Maples in the season’s opening weekend, they’ll take on No. 1 Penn State and No. 8 Illinois in State College before a trip to North Carolina to play No. 7 UNC and Duke. It might take at least that long for the Stanford rotation to become fully set.

“All you really know right now is that we can and have to improve a lot, and if we do, then there are exciting possibilities. And our team is excited about those possibilities,” Dunning said. “They would have been excited about it in a different way if Inky was in the lineup because it would have felt different. But that doesn’t mean that the way we’re doing it right now with the group and the excitement that we have is even better.”

Stanford hosts Texas A&M in its regular season opener at Maples Pavilion on Friday, Aug. 28 at 6 p.m.

Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jordan Wallach is a Senior Staff Writer at The Stanford Daily. He was previously the Managing Editor of Sports, a sports desk editor for two volumes and he continues to work as a beat writer for Stanford's baseball, football and women's volleyball teams. Jordan is a junior from New York City majoring in Mathematical and Computational Science. To contact him, please send him an email at jwallach 'at' stanford.edu.