The senior class of Stanford’s women’s volleyball team had gotten used to winning. Since the start of their freshman year in 2012, all four players — Inky Ajanaku, Madi Bugg, Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard — played a large role in the success of the program. Over their first three seasons, the Cardinal went 90-12 combined, including a 55-5 record against the Pac-12.
“For some reason, the past three years we’ve been here, we would just kind of win — who knows why,” Burgess said. “It would just kind of work in our favor.”
But despite expectations being just as high this year, with the senior class itching to return to the Final Four in its last hurrah, everything has been different. The team has more than doubled its loss total from 2014, and every match seems to be just a bit tougher than in years past.
“It’s been less toppling in our favor,” Burgess continued. “If we want to win, we have to figure out a way to adapt the way that we’re playing mid-game and then figure out how to win.”
While the void that two graduating seniors left in the Cardinal’s starting lineup is partially responsible for the change, a perennial championship-contending program like Stanford’s is used to dealing with the ebb and flow of losing All-Americans to graduation every year.
What has changed the Cardinal’s gameplay from top to bottom is the loss of Inky Ajanaku for the entire season due to an ACL tear. It was obvious that losing Ajanaku, the reigning Volleyball Magazine National Player of the Year, would have to vastly affect the team’s strategy. The 6-foot-3 middle blocker averaged about 3.5 kills and over 1 block per set last season, in addition to being the team’s rock when matches drew close — which didn’t happen very often.
What the team didn’t realize was that not having Ajanaku on the floor would force all the players on the Cardinal roster to adjust their play in ways they hadn’t been asked to do so before.
“The cooperation level goes up when you start to say to a senior, ‘You have to improve,’” said head coach John Dunning. “Sure, the kids are great, and the world has told you for three years that if you were doing well, then you were good. But all of a sudden, you have to be the one that steps up and changes.”
After being asked to train with the U.S. women’s national volleyball team this past June, Ajanaku left school a week early and headed down to Anaheim. She didn’t have many expectations heading into the camp, but the circumstances quickly changed — she was invited to join the team in the Pan-American Cup in Lima, Peru. After a phone call to Dunning, who said that the international play experience would help develop her game even more, Ajanaku made a last-second decision to pack and head to Peru with the team.
“They felt that she was one of the people who, if she got some time in their gym — time to complete — she might have a shot at next year’s Olympics,” Dunning said.
In the second match that the U.S. squad played in Peru, middle blocker Cursty Jackson dislocated her finger in the first set, paving the way for Ajanaku to get some playing time. The Americans won the first two sets and were just points away from clinching the match in the third set, but a Colombian comeback forced the match to a fourth set. Late in that fourth set, with the U.S. in control and again just points away from clinching the win, Ajanaku went for a slide.
“I landed on my right leg and just felt a shift in structural foundation in my knee,” Ajanaku said. “I kind of just collapsed to the ground. I knew something was wrong, but it didn’t feel like anything too severe.”
A day later, Ajanaku flew back to California, where Dunning, as well as associate head coach Denise Corlett, met her at Stanford Hospital. There, she found out that she had an ACL tear.
Ajanaku let the team know about the injury with a group text message to ensure that they wouldn’t hear it from a different source first. People had already seen her go down via a webcam broadcast of the Pan-American Cup game, and the video was apparently circulating.
“Denise already had the video of me going down and sent it to the doctor within 20 minutes,” Ajanaku said.
The news swept through the team, and Ajanaku started getting bombarded with phone calls and texts.
“[The players] were shocked. They knew that we had a very successful season last year,” Dunning said. “We had a lot of people back and we had a big recruiting class of six — good players that are coming in — and we have a chance to be really good. So they were excited about that, and having something that would affect it was really hard at the start.”
For the two-week span between getting back from Peru and her surgery, Ajanaku went to physical therapy every day in order to get the swelling down. And after the surgery, it became two hours almost every other day. Her family flew out and stayed with her to help during the recovery process — her mom and sister first, then her dad.
Ajanaku continues to rehab as the volleyball season progresses, as her teammates continuously remind her that she can return to the Maples Pavilion floor next year as “the best collegiate volleyball player in the nation,” she said.
“That’s what people expect of me,” Ajanaku said before the season. “It’s hard to wake up every day in this situation — you want to push yourself every day — but it makes it easier when you surround yourself with people who are taking on that burden sometimes for you and who will push you everyday so it doesn’t all have to be self-generated.”
Ajanaku now has a team of people working on her recovery and does her physical therapy down the hall from Stanford’s relatively new Human Performance Lab, which has already published three studies specifically on ACL research. She continues to travel with the team on road games and has a loud presence on the sidelines, with her competitive nature the same as it was when she was on the court.
“We get the hints of Inky when we’re on the sideline [during timeouts] looking at her. She’s learning how much her face and her body language affect other people, because she’s doing what she used to do on the court, but now consciously doing it as she talks to us,” Burgess said. “She’s still trying to provide the calming factor that she normally did, but doing it from the bench this year.”
During timeouts, as the coaches confer right after the whistle to figure out a message to give the team, Ajanaku moves around the team huddle with clipboard in hand, giving pointers and encouragement. She picks her spots too, stepping in during tight games with the same voice she would use if she were playing but fading back if the match is in hand. But some things come a bit more difficult to learn from the sidelines.
“I’ll get people water, get towels ready — but I’m still trying to figure out my towel-folding. Our strength coach is pretty strict about it,” Ajanaku said.
It was surprising that the loss of just one player, especially for a talented Stanford team, could directly impact the play of every player on the roster, but that’s exactly what Ajanaku’s loss did.
“I honestly didn’t think that we were going to have to adjust as much as we had to, or [that we] would have as much trouble as we’ve had so far,” Burgess said. “I didn’t realize that the way we played defense would have to change or that the way I hit on the outside would have to change, without having her there.
“It’s a little bit humbling — it makes you appreciate your teammates more and the role they play for you. When they’re gone, you realize how many different things they affect when they’re on the court. It’s forced us all to grow quite a bit, expect less, work for more, be more humble, all those things.”
On defense, Ajanaku’s big block eliminated seams at the net, preventing balls from even reaching the back line. But without her, those seams have reemerged, and the defense has been forced to adjust. Burgess in particular has been working on covering more ground, as she has to move side to side to dig balls a lot more often than she needed to with Ajanaku on the floor.
On offense, Ajanaku was Stanford’s biggest threat. She was a go-to in clutch situations and would attract the opponent’s block towards the middle of the floor, leaving holes for the Cardinal’s outsides. This season, while junior middle blocker Merete Lutz continues to improve on an All-American effort in her first season as a contributor, those openings on the outside are less prevalent.
The adjustment period extended through the first half of the season for the Cardinal. The losses added up quickly, as the team lost consecutive matches to Penn State and North Carolina, fell to USC at home, then lost to both Arizona State and Colorado on the road.
The loss in Boulder became a turning point for the team, as “we realized what we would have to do to make it work for ourselves — to be able to adapt in the moment,” Burgess said.
Adaptation has become the key word for this Stanford team, and the new mindset has already resulted in key wins. Last Friday at home against Arizona, ranked 19th at the time, the Wildcats had all of the momentum in the third game — up 13-9 and looking like they were on the way to taking a 2-1 lead in the match. But one player stepped up. A serving streak, which included two aces, by freshman opposite hitter Hayley Hodson turned the tide and let the Cardinal come back to take the third set and later the match.
It was a similar story the weekend before, against then-No. 4 Washington. The Cardinal dropped the opening set but evened it up after winning the second. Then they dropped the third set, falling behind 2-1. But they rallied to take the final two, clinching the upset.
“You grow used to the way you do things and how you play, and then it took us a long time for [the players] to realize that they needed to stop being frustrated with what was going on and do something about it in a constructive way,” Dunning said about the early-season struggles.
“The key thing that the players understand now is that just when you think that you are who you are and there’s no other way to be, things in the world change,” he continued. “And if you have your sights set on something, you may have to adapt.”
While the process has been a step slower than in years past and players have been pushed beyond their comfort zones as a result of Ajanaku’s injury, the team could still capitalize on what could be a down year for college volleyball nationwide. No team has emerged as a clear No. 1, as opposed to in years past, and many teams still aren’t set. Thus, the new adapting ways of the chameleon Cardinal could prove beneficial down the road and in the postseason.
“In late November last year, [we] were 28-0. That means life went our way," Dunning said. "So what they’re experiencing this year is not completely different than that by any means because we’re very good, but it is a lot different in terms of the struggle we’ve gone through. That struggle clearly will make us better the rest of the year.”
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach 'at' stanford.edu.