March 25, 2009

Cardinal pride in San Diego

Unlike some of the other teams that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen last weekend, the Stanford women easily won the right to travel across the bay for the Berkeley regional this coming weekend. The Cardinal systematically dismantled UC Santa Barbara 74-39 on Saturday and San Diego State 77-49 on Monday.

Both games were notable for stiff defense. At one point in the UCSB game, the Stanford women, wearing white to denote their higher seed and stretching out their long arms, looked like a white picket fence separating UCSB players from the basket.

After the second game, San Diego State fans were asking, “Who was that masked woman?” They were talking about forward Nneka Ogwumike, who poured in 27 points and snatched 13 rebounds, both career highs. They could only marvel when told she’s a freshman. (She wears a protective mask after her nose was broken in practice earlier in the season.) Thanks to the strong inside game, the Cardinal felt no ill effects from tallying only one 3-pointer, a season low.

San Diego State coach Beth Burns, speaking to the San Diego Union-Tribune after the game, said of Stanford, “They almost seem machinelike at times. They’re expressionless and exquisite in their precision. We had no answer for Nneka. Their length bothered us. We rushed. Before the game even got wet, we were in foul trouble.”

When fans and families gathered at the team’s hotel for a send-off before their second game, the big buzz was over the Ball State University Cardinals’ victory over defending national champion Tennessee the night before. It’s being called one of the biggest upsets in the history of the women’s NCAA tournament. I couldn’t help bragging a bit since I’m a Ball State graduate from back in the days when it was Ball State Teachers College. If Ball State were to advance to the Berkeley regional, I had visions of wearing my old Ball State sweatshirt for its game, then switching to my Stanford regalia for the Cardinal game. Iowa State put an end to that thought on Tuesday.

Several people didn’t know much about BSU, which is in Muncie, Ind. It got its name from the Muncie-based company that makes Ball canning jars. The five Ball brothers donated the campus land to Indiana in the early 20th century and gave generously to the college through the years. The family still ranks as one of the university’s top donors. Two other generous donors are well known alumni David Letterman of TV fame and Jim Davis, creator of Garfield the cat.

And here’s to the Stanford band, tree, cheerleaders and Dollies, all of whom were forgoing part of their spring break to boost the team. They add so much to the fun and excitement of tournament play for both the players and the fans.

March 18, 2009

Random observations from LA

The Cardinal made it all seem so easy as the team cruised to the Pac-10 title by defeating each of its three opponents by at least 25 points. The wide margins of victory gave head coach Tara VanDerveer a chance to rest the starters and allot valuable playing time to the bench. It was heartening that all 12 players saw action and did well in the three games.

Before the first game on Friday, I happened to go to the Wilshire Grand Hotel to see where the team was staying. As luck would have it, the bus was there, ready to take the players to the Galen Center. Also there were the band, the tree, the cheerleaders and the Dollies, ready to give the team a rousing send-off.

The sophomores, juniors and seniors had been through this before, most notably in Spokane and Tampa last year – at least in my experience. But it was all brand new to the four freshmen, who seemed thrilled – jumping up and down and hugging each other on the hotel stairs outside as the band played.

The scene was similar before the championship game on Sunday, but this time the Fast Break Club, family members and other fans were there to cheer the team along with the band, tree, cheerleaders and Dollies. As the players, coaches and support staff came down the escalator in the lobby, fans formed an aisle and cheered. Freshman Nneka Ogwumike stopped to sign the backs of two girls’ T-shirts.

The USC players also were going to their bus, so they were cheered, too, as was head coach Mark Trakh, who cringed but smiled.

Once again the Cardinal players assembled on the front steps as the band played and cavorted. Most of the players just smiled and clapped to the music, but senior Morgan
Clyburn and junior JJ Hones joined the Dollies in a do-si-do and sophomore Jeanette Pohlen and senior Jillian Harmon performed some very cool dance moves. Finally, it was time for “All Right Now” as the players filed into the bus and departed.

On Saturday, the Fast Break Club had a pre-game social at McKay’s restaurant in the Radisson Hotel next to the Galen Center. Led by grad Heather Owen, working in the sports development department, this event was highlighted by the presence of six other alumnae: Clare Bodensteiner, Vanessa Nygaard, Sarah Dimson, Tara Harrington, Katie Denny and Chelsea Trotter.

Although I don’t have actual numbers to back this contention, it seemed that Stanford had the largest contingent of fans at the games. The USC section seemed a bit sparse for the first games, perhaps because the school’s men were busy winning their Pac-10 title a few miles away at Staples Center. The USC crowd was larger for the women’s title game after the No. 6 seed had pulled off surprise wins, including a controversial 2-point upset victory over Cal the night before.

Next up for the Cardinal: UC Santa Barbara in San Diego for the start of NCAA play.

These photos of the sendoff to the championship game were taken by Dave Cortesi (click to enlarge):

March 9, 2009

Happy-sad milestones at Maples

It was an afternoon of mixed emotions March 7 as the Cardinal women defeated Arizona State 77-68. The victory vaulted Stanford into sole possession of the Pac-10 regular season title and gave it the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament in LA this week. It also marked the 750th win in head coach Tara VanDerveer’s storied career.

All that was ample reason for celebration, but there was more than a trace of sadness as senior forwards Jillian Harmon and Morgan Clyburn made their final appearance at Maples. Morgan, who is sitting out the season to recuperate from foot surgery, played her role as a principal team booster, cheering from the bench. Jill fulfilled her role on the court, recording seven points, 10 rebounds, four assists and one steal in 36 minutes of gritty, tenacious playing time.

The post-game Senior Day ceremony also paid tribute to Jake Kelman, the KZSU sportscaster who has made home and away games come alive for radio listeners; and to unsung hero Matt McEvoy, a practice player for three years. Male practice players bring their strength, athleticism and speed to the court, helping the team to toughen its offensive and defensive skills. Jake fills in as a practice player on the road, associate head coach Amy Tucker said.

Before the game, Tara presented flowers to ASU’s seniors, who were warmly applauded. After the game, the Stanford players showed their class by going to the ASU bench to honor one of its stars, Dymond Simon, who was felled by a knee injury early in the game.

Senior Day continued at Dallmar Court as the team and fans honored Morgan, joined by her parents, brother and grandmother; and Jill, joined by her parents and brother.

It seems that both Morgan and Jill took to basketball at an early age.

Jill’s father, Randy, said that when Jill was about 6 months old, she happened to see a basketball and was fascinated. By age 4, she was shooting the ball, and in kindergarten she decided that she wanted to go to Stanford.

Morgan’s brother, Jeff, said that when she was in third grade, she broke her hand right before team tryouts. “She was not going to miss tryouts,” so her hand was wrapped in bubble wrap. Everyone could hear it popping as she played. Morgan also went to Jeff’s team practices and filled in whenever possible, setting up some sibling confrontations.

Both sets of parents thanked the fans and team for their support. Jill’s mother, Julie, said how much she has enjoyed watching Jill and Morgan become more confident and mature, acquiring traits that will help them throughout their lives.

Teammates JJ Hones, Jayne Appel and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude then told some stories about the two seniors. “Morgan and I have such a good time sitting on the bench,” said JJ, who is recuperating from knee surgery. Jayne told of the team’s trip to last year’s Final Four, when she had to go to a TV film session. Not realizing she was to be shown reading a book, she didn’t have one, but Morgan came through. “So there I was reading a biomechanical engineering book,” Jayne said, referring to Morgan’s major. “She was a leader in studying,” setting a good example for and inspiring her teammates. “We love Morgan,” Jayne said.

Both from Oregon, JJ and Jill often played against each other in high school. At their second meeting, Jill scored 37 points. On the other hand, JJ’s team beat Jill’s on Jill’s birthday. “I’m gloating,” JJ said, but the fans are singing “Happy Birthday” to Jill.

Ros is a senior classmate of Morgan and Jill, but she’s coming back next year after red-shirting her sophomore year. She called Morgan “one of the best shot blockers I’ve ever seen” and noted that Jill’s team nickname is “Jill the thrill.”

Morgan told the fans she hopes to return to Stanford next fall to work on her master’s in engineering. Otherwise, she is applying for jobs as a stopgap. In an interview to be posted later this week, she said she’d like to develop cardiac devices. Jill has already started graduate work at Stanford and hopes to play internationally. She was a leading scorer on New Zealand’s Olympic basketball team this summer. Both of them thanked the fans for their support.

After dismissing the team, Tara talked about the game. “I’m really proud of our team,” she said, adding “Jayne had a fabulous game.” The junior center had 29 points, 10 rebounds, one assist and two blocks. The coach also praised sophomore guard Jeanette Pohlen for her 19 points, five rebounds, five assists, one block and one steal. And sophomore forward Kayla Pedersen “is so steady out there,” chipping in 8 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Some other player notes: Sophomore Hannah Donaghe will know this week when she is to have surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered in practice last month. With surgery likely for later this spring, she’ll probably be able to travel with the team, Tara said.

JJ, who is expected to return to action next season, will spend next quarter in Madrid, Spain, with a Stanford overseas program, Amy said. This will be a good travel year for her since the team is going to Italy in September.

March 7, 2009

Lesson learned – never underestimate anyone

“Whew! That was too close for comfort,” was the prevailing sentiment among FBC members after the Cardinal eked out a 70-67 win over Arizona on March 5. “We were fortunate,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said. “It was a tough matchup for us.”

Both Tara and associate head coach Amy Tucker commented on how much Arizona has improved since Stanford played the team in Tucson earlier this season. “They shot the ball extremely well tonight,” especially in the second half, Amy said. Arizona also changed its tough defense a lot, forcing 15 Cardinal turnovers that led to 23 points.

Tara credited two sophomores, guard Jeanette Pohlen and forward Kayla Pedersen, for their excellent play. Jeanette led the team with a career-high 21 points, most of them coming from a career-high five of eight 3-pointers. Kayla contributed 16 points, including two 3-pointers. “Kayla’s on a roll,” Tara said, citing the back-to-back 20-point games she had in Los Angeles last week.

On another note, Tara said that freshman Nneka Ogwumike will wear her protective mask through the end of the season as a precaution. Her nose was broken during practice a few weeks ago. Nneka, who scored 8 points against Arizona, delighted the crowd with another feat. When the ball got stuck between the glass and the rim after a free throw attempt early in the second half, no one seemed to know what to do until Nneka left the bench, leapt up and knocked the ball loose.

Because of this tough game against the Pac-10’s now eighth-ranked team, “We will not be overconfident next week” going into the conference tournament,” Amy said. Still, the win assured the Cardinal of the No. 1 seed in the tournament and at least a two-way tie with Arizona State for the Pac-10 regular season title. The Cardinal could win the title outright with a win over the Sun Devils on March 7. “We don’t want to share it,” Amy said.

Before the coaches comments, Krista Rappahahn, ’06, told fans what she’s been doing during the past two and a half years. She’s a first-year med student at Stanford and plays coed intramural basketball with a med school team. Having just returned from a game, she was still in her team outfit, noting that the name on the back of her jersey is Rapamycin, a pun on an immunosuppressant drug used in organ transplantation.

She’s the only woman on her team. “No one wants to guard me because I’m a girl,” she said, but apparently her skills are turning some heads. “I made a bunch of threes tonight.” She also attends as many women’s games as she can, but “it’s hard to sit too close because I want to get into the game.”

Before returning to Stanford, Krista played professionally in Sweden for two seasons and lived in Stockholm, where she also did some research. Her team won the national championship in the first season. Between seasons she worked in Ireland at a camp for children with serious illnesses.

Communicating with her teammates in Sweden wasn’t difficult because they speak English well. Because it’s such an egalitarian society, though, it’s hard for people to step up and lead, a role that Krista assumed. On the other hand, American fans are more reserved than their Swedish counterparts.

She said she’s enjoying med school but hasn’t decided what her specialty might be. She’s scheduled to work in a neonatal intensive care unit and in orthopedics.