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There’s always plenty of anticipation and expectations surrounding the reigning national championship as the start of a new season approaches.
Especially when, like 2018 champ Stanford, the national titleist returns all but one starter and kicks off the year ranked No. 1 in the country.
The Cardinals—led by third-year head coach Kevin Hambly and First Team All-Americans Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz, and Kathryn Plummer (who also happens to be a two-time AVCA National Player of the Year)—begin their title defeat in Charleston, South Carolina, where they open the season at the College of Charleston Classic, along with Michigan State, Duke, and, of course, the host team College of Charleston.
Stanford will face 2019 without graduated middle Tami Alade, who in 2018 lead the nation in blocks per set (1.87) and was the sixth most effective hitter in the country (.409). But to take her place, Hambly brought in the first transfer in Stanford volleyball history. Yes, really. Before UCLA middle blocker Madeline Gates finished her undergraduate degree in three years and decided to pursue a masters in statistics at Stanford, the Cardinal women’s volleyball team had never had a transfer on its roster.
At UCLA, Gates earned Second Team All-American honors as a sophomore in 2017, and Hambly highlighted her attacking efficiency and ability to hit a slide. Oh yeah, and she can dunk:
UCLA's Madeleine Gates plays volleyball, but she can also throw em down! ?— SB Nation (@SBNation) July 27, 2017
(? cassyathenaphoto / instagram) pic.twitter.com/EebxgKWghN
Gray, Plummer, Hentz, and Audrianna Fitzmorris, who along with twins Caitlin and Michaela Keefe make up what is perhaps the most stacked recruiting class in recent history, are now seniors, having already won two NCAA championships.
Hambly also brings in the country’s top group of freshmen, according to VolleyballMag.com, a bunch that includes 6-5 outside hitter Kendall Kipp, PrepVolleyball’s No. 3 recruit in the Class of 2019. Stanford’s freshman class also features setter Selina Xu—who likely won’t see the court until after Gray graduates, but in a few short years will be one of the top setters in college volleyball—and Kipp’s fellow First Team Under Armour All-Americans Natalie Berty and Caitie Baird. Oh, and McKenna Vicini, a middle blocker ranked 10th among all players in the class by PrepVolleyball.
College of Charleston will have the pleasure of playing Stanford in Friday’s season-opener. The Cougars finished their conference season with a loss to James Madison in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament but went on to make a deep run in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship, falling to Tulane just one match away from the championship.
After losing four-year starting setter Allison Beckman, top offensive contributor Devon Rachel, and Honorable Mention All-American opposite Kennedy Madison to graduation, Jason Kepner’s College of Charleston squad will be looking for some new faces to step up in 2019.
Outside hitter Lauren Freed, now a senior, earned preseason All-CAA honors after finishing 2018 ranked third on the team in kills and second in digs. The Cougars will also need major contributions from returning starters Peyton Eisnaugle, Mandy Napierala, and Logan Manusky as well as a couple of the new freshmen, namely setter Tori Carpenter and middle blocker Emma Falk.
On Saturday, Duke will get its chance to go head-to-head with the reigning national champ. Led by preseason All-ACC outside hitter Payton Schwantz, the Blue Devils lineup also includes five additional returning starters in Samantha Amos, Mackenzie Cole, Lily Cooper, Sarah Nelson and Ade Owokoniran.
Pacific grad transfer Lauren Cline could help fill the gap left by graduated middle blocker Leah Meyer, and highly touted freshman Camille Nazor will likely have to step in for multitalented setter/right side Andie Shelton, who finished her senior year in 2018 as the national leader in triple-doubles.
Duke and Michigan State play in Charleston on Friday night, with the Big Ten team returning all but one of its starters after being the youngest team in its conference in 2018.
The Spartans’ returning leading scorer Alyssa Chronowski will be a handful for opposing defenses, while sophomore middle blocker Naya Gros and Rebecka Poljan will build formidable walls at the net. In the offseason head coach Cathy George also brought in Oklahoma transfer Audrey Alford to add to the depth chart at the setter position.
Starting with the very first match of the season, Michigan State will be looking to improve upon its 17-16 overall record from 2018 and return to the national postseason after missing the NCAA Tournament last year.
College of Charleston Classic Schedule
Friday, Aug. 30
4:30 PM ET: Michigan State vs. Duke
7 PM ET: Stanford vs. College of Charleston
Saturday, Aug. 31
4:30 PM ET: Stanford vs. Duke
7 PM ET: Michigan State vs. College of Charleston