Nature or nurture?
In the case of red-hot Stanford, the seventh seed in the NCAA Tournament, it’s a lot of both.
“I think our team is extremely athletic,” freshman setter Madi Bugg said. “We make plays in practice all the time where you know you don’t teach stuff like that. It’s raw athleticism.”
When the final four teams gather Dec. 19-21 in Seattle for the NCAA Division I Championship, you can bet the ESPN cameras will be panning the Key Arena stands for parents of players who are big, strong, and former standout athletes. You see it every year. But rarely do you see a roster like Stanford’s, where seemingly every player on the team comes from outstanding athletic lineage.
“I’m interested in psychology and genetics and stuff like that,” Stanford sophomore outside hitter Brittany Howard said. “So I’ve thought about that before.
“It’s definitely cool that we have that on this team.”
Three of the Cardinal’s players have moms who were standout volleyball players in college. And nearly every player on the team has parents or siblings or both who were top-level athletes in one sport or another.
Stanford coach John Dunning, in his 13th year, said he doesn’t necessarily target daughters of athletes but finds that he’s drawn to their sports smarts when he watches them.
“They get how to play,” Dunning said. “They like being on the court, they’re all competitive, and there’s that sense of ‘I’m not just playing to play, but on every play I try to figure out a way to win.’”
-- The team’s leading hitter and blocker, senior middle Carly Wopat, is the daughter of Ron and Kathy. Ron placed 12th in the 1980 Olympic Trials in the decathlon and Kathy competed in gymnastics and track and field at UC Santa Barbara.
-- The aforementioned Howard, just one kill behind Wopat with 274 through Stanford’s 24-5 season, is the daughter of Steve and Eileen. Steve played basketball at Saint Mary’s and the University of Pacific, while Eileen (then Dempster) was a three-time AVCA All-American at UOP from 1981-84 and then played on the U.S. Women’s National Team for two years. And Brittany’s brother Brad plays for Princeton’s men’s volleyball team.
“Hands down she’s better than I am,” Eileen Howard said of her daughter. “All these girls are so much more advanced coming out of high school. They were doing things in high school that we [did] in college.”
Eileen just missed getting coached by Dunning at Pacific, where he won two NCAA titles before coming to Stanford. Brittany Howard never saw her mom play.
“From what I’ve heard from other people, she was amazing,” Brittany said. “And that’s really inspiring.”
-- Bugg, ranked 7th nationally in assists per set (11.88), is the daughter of the former Robin Maine. Robin, who coaches at Triangle Volleyball Club in Raleigh, N.C., was a middle blocker at Tennessee and was inducted into the school’s hall of fame.
“She was 2 when she started,” Robin Bugg said. “We started her with a beach ball. Her dad would pass with her in the house all the time. We have pictures of her in her diapers passing. She’s just always been in the gym. I coached her [in club] her whole life. She’s always been dragged to the gym.”
-- Freshman setter Kelsey Humphreys is waiting her turn to see significant playing time, but her mom, the former Wendy Rush, was a four-time All-American setter at Stanford from 1984-87 and is in the school’s athletic hall of fame. It wasn’t lost on the players that her photo is on the wall in the team dressing room.
What’s more, Kelsey’s dad, Brad, played football at Stanford also from 1984-87.
“It’s surreal for us, that this all worked out and this is where she landed,” Wendy Humphreys said. “It’s really exciting.”
Said Kelsey, “She never really pushed me into it at all. It was my own decision and it’s nice to be able to share something like this, the love of the game.”
-- Jordan Burgess, a sophomore middle, has 269 kills, is hitting .300, and her dad, David, played football and competed in track for Manchester College in Indiana.
-- Inky (whose full name is Oyinkansola OluSeun) Ajanaku, also a sophomore middle, has 247 kills, is hitting .438, and only four behind Wopat with 130 blocks including a team-high 22 solo. Her sister, Kitan, plays middle for Georgia State.
And the Stanford list goes on and on, from Andrew Luck’s sister to Jenny Lang Ping’s daughter to the sister of a water polo star.
How much athletic lineage factored into Stanford’s season can’t be measured, but it couldn’t have hurt. Stanford has won nine matches in a row and 11 of its last 12 as it prepares to open the NCAA Tournament at home against Hampton on Thursday.
But the season didn’t start quite so well. The Cardinal once stood 2-2 after a dismal showing early in the season at the Nike Big 4 Challenge in Austin, Texas, getting beat in four sets each by Florida, seeded fifth in the NCAA Tournament, and then subsequently by No. 2-seed Penn State.
“We’ve always tried to schedule really hard in the preseason,” said Dunning, who has coached Stanford to two of its six NCAA titles, the last in 2004. “This year it might have been too early for us, but it was still good. You get to see a picture of what you’re like and what you need to work on. We’ve been trying to work on our serving game and it obviously failed us there.
“For me that was the difference in those matches. We served horribly and the rest of the game it was OK. So we came back and we worked on it and we’re a [much] better serving team now.”
Since then, Stanford – ranked No. 3 in the final regular-season AVCA poll – has gone 22-3, losing only at NCAA second-seeded Washington in five and both matches to sixth-seeded USC.
“Our team is really in a good spot,” Dunning said. Our chemistry is good, they’re really fun to coach, and we get better all the time. It’s really a remarkable group. We haven’t played many people all year because the matches have been so tough. We have a lineup where we can leave all three outside hitters [Burgess, Howard, Williams] on the court all the time and our opposite, so we don’t have to sub very much. We’re learning how to play because they’re out there together a lot.
“We’re a lot better than we were at the start of the season.”
Along the way Wopat, the senior from Santa Barbara, has hit .438 and is averaging 1.41 blocks per set.
Howard, the sophomore from Los Altos, is hitting .257. And don’t forget Rachel Williams, a senior outside, who has 266 kills, is hitting .246, and has collected 20 aces, second only to Bugg’s 32.
For the record, and not to forget anyone, last week Stanford had its senior night and two defensive players were honored: Lydia Bai and Mary Ellen Luck. Bai’s mom, Lang Ping, led China to the 1984 Olympic gold medal and then coached the U.S. to the silver medal in 1984. Luck’s father is the former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, now the athletic director at his alma mater, West Virginia, and her brother is Andrew Luck, the former Stanford quarterback now a star with the Indianapolis Colts.
Ivana Vanjak, a freshman outside hitter from Germany, has a sister, Ana, who played volleyball at Cornell and her uncle was a pro basketball player.
Sophomore middle Megan McGehee’s dad, David, played football at Missouri Valley College and her mom, Andrea, played volleyball there.
Junior defensive player Kyle Gilbert’s dad, Clark, was a running back for Wheaton College and her older brother, Taylor, was a lacrosse player at UC Santa Barbara.
Freshman outside Grace Kennedy is the land athlete in her family. Her father, Raymond, swam for Stanford and her sister Victoria won two NCAA titles as a water polo player at Stanford.
Dunning has taken Stanford to five of its 18 final fours. He’s lost in the championship match four times, the last in 2008. This team certainly has a shot, perhaps even a rematch with Penn State in the regional final. Maybe the stacked genes will be the difference they need.
“That lineage, that upbringing in families where there’s a high level of understanding of sports and how sports work, and specifically in volleyball,” Dunning pondered, “that’s pretty rare, huh?”