Stanford will try for repeat in volleyball with new coach
Kevin Hambly's task would seem daunting.
Stanford's new volleyball coach follows Hall of Famer John Dunning, who retired after winning three national championships and eight Pac-12 titles in 16 years with the Cardinal. Dunning went out on top, winning the last of his five national titles in 2016 after a 32-year career at Stanford and Pacific.
Feel any pressure, Kevin?
''I don't think the expectations change here at Stanford the minute you jump in,'' he said. ''Once you take this job you're expected to win national championships. That's not just volleyball. That's every sport. So I don't feel more pressure than I would have if they didn't win it last year or lost in the final.''
Hambly, who coached Illinois the past eight years and led the 2011 team to the national championship match, inherits most of the pieces from a squad that won 16 of its last 17 matches, beat Texas for the title and finished 27-7. Stanford was ranked No. 2 in the preseason American Volleyball Coaches Association poll behind Texas despite getting more first-place votes than the Longhorns.
Freshman Meghan McClure will take over the outside hitter spot that had been held by three-time first-team All-American Inky Ajanaku, and freshman Meghan McClure will play a major role as defensive specialist. National freshman of the year Kathryn Plummer is among four starters and a libero who return.
Stanford opens Friday against Long Beach State at the LBSU Invitational and will play its first seven matches away from home. The road trip ends in Hambly's old stomping grounds - Champaign, Illinois - where the Cardinal will play Illinois and heavyweight Penn State in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge on Sept. 8-9.
''I'm trying to learn from what they did last year but also make it new, make it fresh, make it my own team and my own culture,'' Hambly said. ''There is some good in me coming in and trying to change a few things.''
The plan is to pick up the tempo of the offense and set the ball faster as well as tweak the defense.
''We're trying to figure out how to best maximize the talent on this team,'' Hambly said. ''We're not lacking talent. We don't have incredible depth. We have enough pieces that we should be pretty good.''
Hambly retained Dunning's top assistant, Denise Corlett, who is starting her 29th year at Stanford. But he said it will take time for everyone to mesh.
''You don't gain trust until you've been through some fights,'' he said. ''I don't think I'll feel completely comfortable with this group, and they won't be completely comfortable with me, until we've been through a season or a through a big chunk of our season. Fortunately, I have Denise. She helped recruit these guys and will help us understand each other.''
Some other teams to watch, with last year's record:
Texas (27-5, national runner-up)
The preseason No. 1 Longhorns bring back three first-team All-Americans among five starters and a libero and have the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. Don't bet against Texas making it to the NCAA final four for a sixth straight year and to the title match for a third year in a row.
Washington (29-5, regional finalist)
The third-ranked Huskies return six starters and a libero from their Pac-12 championship team and are favored to win the league again. Three All-Americans are back, and they add senior transfer Marion Hazelwood, a three-time All-America middle blocker at Oklahoma.
Minnesota (29-5, national semifinalist)
Sixth-year coach Hugh McCutcheon's program has been built to last. He lost three starters, including national player of the year Sarah Wilhite, but the Gophers still go into the season as the highest-ranked Big Ten team at No. 4. They've made two straight final fours, a regional semifinal and a regional final in the last five years.
Nebraska (31-3, national semifinalist)
The expectations remain the same - final four or bust - even though the fifth-ranked Cornhuskers lost most of the firepower from a year ago. Adding to the challenge is that veteran setter Kelly Hunter has an undisclosed injury and may be out to start the season.
Penn State (24-10, regional semifinalist)
The Nittany Lions are expected to come back from what, for them, was a down year. They're ranked No. 6 and favored to win the Big Ten after finishing fourth in the league in 2016. Three All-Americans head a deep and experienced roster capable of getting over the hump after the Lions went 1-6 in five-set matches and finished with 10 losses for the first time since 1983.