All in the Family

Rod Searcey

At home, they often “pepper” in the basement, when Mom and Dad aren’t around.

“Someone will serve, someone will pass, or we can set,” says big sis Ogonna Nnamani, one of Stanford’s star outside hitters. “It’s not a very destructive game, in a lamp-friendly way.”

Younger sister Njideka giggles at that. She reminds her lifelong roommate of the times when their mother has come home unexpectedly and yelled, “What’s going on downstairs?”

Ah, the perils of trying to contain two energetic volleyball players under one roof. Ogonna, ’05, and Njideka, ’07, grew up playing on club teams in Bloomington, Ill., and took their high school team to two state championships. The Cardinal got its first real glimpse of the sister act on the afternoon of August 30, when Njideka recorded her first collegiate kill and Ogonna notched a match-high 15 kills as Stanford swept the Bradley Braves 3-0 in Fort Collins, Colo. That night, against Florida A&M, Ogonna tallied a career-high 30 kills.

The Nnamanis are wicked tough on the court—“extraordinarily athletic,” as coach John Dunning puts it—but friendly as can be in their downtime. At home, they share hip-hop CDs and choreograph dances, sometimes dragging younger brothers Nnaemeka, 15, and Ikechi, 12, into the floor show. On campus, Ogonna weaves cornrows for other players, and Njideka is the team’s fashion consultant. (“I really like your earrings,” she whispers to a reporter who’s unaccustomed to hearing compliments from student-athletes.)

With the June graduation of Olympian and two-time Player of the Year Logan Tom, Ogonna may be stepping into a new leadership role. “What we asked her to do last year was to be a terminating attacker and blocker,” says Dunning, who is starting his third season as head coach. “This year we’re asking her to [play] a larger role—to also play defense in the back row and to attack from the back row, which will make her presence felt in the game more.” Ogonna, he adds, “is one of the people in the college game right now who can carry all of that.”

Ogonna, who was Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in 2001, was one of three collegians who played for the United States in this summer’s Pan American Games, and Dunning says the experience shows. “She is calmer, has more confidence and wants the ball even more than she always has. She has played the Cubans and Puerto Ricans and Brazilians, which are some of the best teams in the world.”

Njideka is one of five freshmen on the team, and Dunning describes her as a valuable utility player. “She can do three things—play libero, play outside hitter and set,” he says. “We’re going to have to figure out what to do with her long-term, but right now we’re trying to have her be an outside hitter because then she can pass and dig and hit and block—do everything except set.”

Dunning says players are motivated to prove themselves this season. “One, we lost [the NCAA championship], and two, Logan’s gone and people want to believe we aren’t any good now. So our job is to say, ‘Okay, we know what you’re thinking and we want to prove to you that we deserve your respect.’ ”

So far, so good. With four returning starters, including All-American middle blocker Sara McGee, ’04, the fourth-ranked Cardinal was off to a 12-2 start at press time. Freshman Kristin Richards, the top high school recruit in the nation last year, was second on the team in kills and digs. And rumor had it that a certain big sister would really like to show her little sister the Final Four.