Cassidy Lichtman | former U.S. national team player, AVCA All American at Stanford
It’s time to pull back the curtain on Stanford’s 2016 NCAA championship. I’m going to tell you the secret of how we took the youngest team ever to the final four and came out the other side with a trophy.
Everybody knows about the one-of-a-kind leader we had in Inky Ajanaku. She had both the ability to put the team on her back and will us to victory and the ability to make others believe they could do the same.
Everybody knows about the unbelievably talented freshman class Stanford had last season. They amazed me every single day, not just in the things they could do at their age but also in their dedication to getting even better.
Everybody knows about our height. We were the tallest team in the history of the NCAA, and the right-side block of 6-8 Merete Lutz in combination with our middles completely changed the game.
Everybody should know about our bench. Their dance parties were featured on the telecast many times in the finals, but they brought that energy for us from day one. They let us own every gym we walked into, no matter how many of our opponents’ fans sat in the stands.
Most people even know about our roller coaster of a season. We did not start out as a championship team. Some days we didn’t even look like good a team. We had losses, injuries and weekly lineup changes. I think, though, that everything went wrong that needed to go wrong for it to go right in the end. We had to face some adversity and learn to fight through it. That’s what allowed an inexperienced group to go down two games to none in front of a packed house in Wisconsin and come all the way back to book a ticket to the final four.
Those aren’t secrets. They are components of our victory, but you probably knew all of that. What you didn’t know was that, if you had walked into our pregame meal just three hours before we stepped on the court to play Texas in the NCAA championship match in Columbus, Ohio, you would have found our freshman class, constantly praised for their maturity and composure, dissolving into a fit of giggles over a story involving Polly Pocket. You didn’t know that, as our team danced down the red carpet into the arena for the biggest match of their careers, one of our players was wearing a cheese hat that she’d gotten in Wisconsin.
That was our secret. Not cheese hats and Polly Pockets – but that we only asked one thing of our team that weekend in Columbus. We asked them simply to be who they are. All year they had been this whirlwind of energy and laughter and silliness. And it worked for them. It worked because it was genuine and unselfish. They found joy in the big games and in the daily grind; they could have fun and be focused. They understood that we all had the same goals and it would take every one of us to achieve them.
When we made it to the final four, we talked about the cameras, the press, the awards and how all of those things try to force you to change. But their big personalities, loud voices and ability to be endlessly amused by themselves and each other were what got us there in the first place. And they would be our greatest advantage.
Every team is different. Some need the noise and others need calm. Some need discipline and routine and others need freedom. There’s no formula for how much to laugh or to scout or which song to listen to in the locker room. The secret, though, I think remains the same. Be who you are. No matter the match, the moment or what’s on the line – be who you are. That was our secret weapon. And it was not only a huge part of the reason that we won a championship, but also, in my opinion, a huge part of the reason that it felt so good when we did.
Cassidy Lichtman was a member of the U.S. women’s national team during the 2013-16 quadrennial. She was a two-time first team AVCA All American setter at Stanford (2007-08) and an assistant coach in 2016 when the Cardinal won the school’s seventh NCAA championship in women’s volleyball.