Freshman quartet playing like seasoned veterans for Stanford

Michael Pimentel/Stanford PhotoBrittany Howard

Stanford’s Brittany Howard battled freshman anxiety as she stepped onto the court for her first college volleyball game in August. Sure enough, the first serve came her way and she steered it off to setter Karissa Cook with senior poise.

“I was really, really nervous, but somehow I managed to make it through the game,” Howard said.

Now, she ranks third on the team in kills, third in digs, fourth in blocks and fourth in points. And she isn’t the only freshman tearing up the Farm this season. No. 2 Stanford (29-3) hauled in the nation’s top recruiting class last year and the contributions of Howard, Jordan Burgess, Madi Bugg and Inky Ajanaku are a key reason why the Cardinal will be competing for a 19th trip to the Final Four at the Berkeley Regional this weekend.

“It’s rare to have a freshman class where four freshmen play a major role,” coach John Dunning said. “They’ve had a huge effect on the program.”

By the fifth game of the season, all four freshmen had landed spots in Dunning’s starting lineup. Bugg stepped into the starting setter role after Cook went down with an injury and she didn’t flinch. The setter is the quarterback of a volleyball team and Bugg is managing the position with maturity.

“She has a very high volleyball IQ and she has very good senses for the game,” Dunning said.

No one is surprised by Burgess’ impact thus far. Burgess was the Gatorade National Player of the Year last season and she was a member of the U.S. youth national team in 2011. She is the team’s second-leading point scorer and she’s also second in kills, trailing Carly Wopat.

“Our team has been extremely accepting of all the freshmen,” Burgess said. “They’ve made this transition rather easy.”

The team also had high expectations for Ajanaku, a middle blocker who was ranked as the nation’s No. 2 recruit last year. Ajanaku is 6-foot-3 with an eagle’s wingspan and she has the athleticism to jump right out of the gym.

The Cardinal won 22 straight games after Bugg became the fourth freshman to join the starting lineup. The future looks bright, but Ajanaku said the team isn’t looking down the road at this point.

“We’re impatient,” she said. “A lot of people say, ‘You’re going to be great soon,’ but we’re ready to be great now.”

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