Dec. 10, 2009

By Michelle Smith
Special to

PALO ALTO, Calif. –
Janet Okogbaa is the “center” of the Stanford women’s volleyball team, says Cardinal coach John Dunning.

She is willing to be the team clown, showing up with award-winning Halloween costumes and keeping her teammates loose with her jokes. She is an academic pace-setter, keeping her path clear to medical school. And in the middle of the Cardinal’s front line, she is Stanford’s go-to offensive player.

The 6-foot-3 senior middle blocker from Tampa is having the best season of her career, one that was slowed early by injuries, but is picking up steam in the closing act.

As Stanford makes its fourth consecutive appearance in Division I women’s volleyball regionals – the fourth-seeded Cardinal will host 13th-seeded Michigan at 10 p.m. (ET) at Maples Pavilion Friday night – Okogbaa has set new career highs in kills, attempts, blocks, aces, hitting percentage this season. No. 12 Hawaii will play No. 5 Illinois in the other regional semifinal at 8 p.m. (ET).

She ranks second in the Pac-10 in hitting percentage (.381), and third in blocks (1.25).

Okogbaa has the opportunity to finish her career where she started, not only by returning to the Final Four for the fourth year in a row, but also by going home to Tampa to play for a national title in front of family and friends. The national championship will be played at the St. Pete Time’s Forum Dec. 17-19.

“I feel like I’ve come a long way,” Okogbaa said “In the beginning (of her career) I felt like a deer in the headlights, it was like ‘Do I even remember how to hit the ball over the net?’ But I have definitely gotten used to being in pressure situations and now I’m ready to go.”

Dunning, who could win the 700th match of his career if Stanford can beat Michigan, said Okogbaa has always had extraordinary physical gifts. She was one of the most sought-after players in the nation out of Berkeley Prep as well as a member of the junior national team.

“She touches higher than anybody I’ve ever coached,” Dunning said. “She touches 11 feet and that’s way up there. She’s jumps high, she’s strong and she’s fast.”

But injuries derailed her progress in the first couple of years of her college career, including stress fractures in her feet and a broken pinky finger that needed to repaired surgically.

“At the end of my freshman year, I broke my finger and they had to insert metal in there to repair it,” Okogbaa said. “I was off for three months and I came back with a cast to protect my finger as I played.

“It was like a club, really bulky and uncomfortable.”

But Okogbaa’s role in the program has increased with her improvement and with the graduation of star hitters Cynthia Barboza and Foluke Akinradewo, who remains at Stanford as an undergraduate assistant coach.

Okogbaa moved into Akinradewo’s spot on the floor – huge shoes to fill. Akinradewo was the 2007 national player of the year and is now a member of the U.S. national team.

“Alix (Klineman) and Cynthia and Foluke got a lot of attention, so we didn’t need to lean on Janet offensively,” Dunning said. “This year, we need to set her as often as we can. You can’t replace that kind of talent, but you do things differently and we set her now as much as we can.”

Akinradewo’s presence has helped Okogbaa. The two players are close friends.

“I keep learning from her,” Okogbaa said. “She’s so consistent in everything she does.”

Okogbaa is teaching as well, talking to Stanford’s younger players, telling them what they need to know about the NCAA post-season experience. She has plenty of her own knowledge to draw on, having been to three national title matches with Stanford since she arrived.

“Everything is a little different, from the warm-up music to the way that teams just play out of their minds,” Okogbaa said. “Things just become more magical.”