Launching her 23rd season at the helm of the Stanford women’s basketball, Head Coach Tara VanDerveer knows how to take both the short- and the long-term view. She took both in talking to the Fast Break Club after the team toughed out a 68-55 home court win against the gritty Minnesota Golden Gophers of the Big 10 on Nov. 14.
After two easy exhibition wins, the team’s season opener started with some adversity. Point guard JJ Hones was on the bench wearing a boot on her right foot because of a stress reaction, an injury usually caused by overuse. “She was just resting tonight,” the coach said, but it’s uncertain when she’ll be back. Rest is the recommended treatment.
With JJ sidelined, guard Jeanette Pohlen got the starting call along with center Jayne Appel, forwards Kayla Pedersen and Jillian Harmon, and guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. By the time the game was over, every healthy player except freshman guard Grace Mashore and sophomore forward Ashley Cimino saw some action.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Tara said. “It was a very physical game” that left freshman forward Sarah Boothe with a bloody nose, limiting her playing time. Nevertheless, “I was excited about how hard our team played.” She praised several players, including forward Michelle Harrison, who had suffered a season-ending knee injury last November.
With JJ out, “we need to develop other people. Things are not smooth just yet …. The guards are going to have to step up…. We’re a lot better with (JJ).” Still, “people did not back down” even though “we missed a lot of easy shots… We missed at least 10 layups.”
Although she couldn’t criticize the officiating, the crowd was unhappy when fouls were called on Stanford players who had made clean blocks, as verified by replays.
Assistant Coach Bobbie Kelsey, speaking before Tara’s arrival, noted that physical teams are good for the Cardinal. Looking ahead to the first away game against Baylor on Nov. 16, she said that with four starters back from last year, “they’re very physical. We need that.” Bobbie was responsible for scouting Baylor.
“Tonight we just couldn’t get a shot” despite some good looks, she said. Stanford finished with 45.8 percent shooting to Minnesota’s 35 percent. Three Stanford players – Kayla with 14 (plus 12 rebounds) Jane with 14 and freshman forward Nneka Ogwumike with 11 – finished in double figures.
It takes time to learn to play together, Tara said, but “this is a motivated and close team. It’s really exciting to see how much this team will improve.” She noted that she could schedule pushover teams before Pac-10 and tournament play begins, but they wouldn’t help the Cardinal improve. She relishes the tough competition that makes her team tougher.
As is customary, FBC members had their first chance to meet one of the freshmen. In this case, it was a smiling Nneka. “The team is wonderful. I’m having fun,” she said. She added that she was looking forward to the Baylor game because her family in Texas would be there. Her mother planned to see the team’s home games against New Mexico and Rutgers this week.
She wants to become an orthopedist, but she also wants to play professionally or overseas after graduation. While in high school, she volunteered as a coach for recreational basketball and volleyball teams. She also helped organized a marathon run by female athletes to benefit children in Darfur and helped raise money for the family of another school’s coach who died.
Nneka was actively recruited by a number of schools, including Baylor, but she appreciated the fact that the Stanford coaches “respected my schedule.” She played coy about where she’d go, Bobbie said, but “I felt good when she bought a (Stanford) T-shirt at the bookstore.”
So far she has found the academic demand to be “much easer than I thought it would be,” but she had learned how to be disciplined in high school, Nneka said. Bobbie added that Nneka’s Nigerian-born parents instilled that sense of discipline along with a sense of responsibility as Nneka helped her three younger sisters get ready for school every morning.
In playing for Stanford, “there are a lot of expectations” for a team with the No. 2 national ranking, but it’s a “motivation to strive for success,” Nneka said. She followed Stanford’s success last season and knew she wanted to be a part of it. She also likes the college game’s faster tempo.