April 10, 2009

Standing tall in St. Louis

The 11 players returning from last year’s Stanford women’s basketball team gained so much valuable experience and had so much fun at the NCAA Final Four in Tampa that they wanted to go the Final Four in St. Louis this year. “Run it back” was their mantra, a goal readily accepted by the four freshmen.

And run it back they did, with each one of the 15 players contributing in her own way to the success of this year’s team. Yes, it was disappointing to lose to undefeated and eventual champion UConn in the semi-final game, but the players never quit and, according to head coach Tara VanDerveer, never made excuses.

The simple reality was that Stanford lost to one of the best women’s teams ever, but it wasn’t a total loss. The players still gained valuable experience and still had fun. Moreover, they saw where they need to improve as a team and as individuals to come back even better next year.

As I stood in line waiting to board the Southwest Airlines flight that would take me from St. Louis to San Francisco via Las Vegas after the games, I found myself next to the parents and grandfather of freshman guard Lindy La Rocque. They expressed their pride in Lindy and the team and talked about what Lindy plans to do this summer to prepare for next season.

The weekend had started on a celebratory note with the team taking part in several activities. Those activities included the thrill of seeing junior center Jayne Appel honored as a member of the State Farm Coaches’ All-America team on Saturday.

Then on Sunday, which had begun with heavy snow flurries, a large contingent of fans and families gathered at the team’s Millennium Hotel to give the team a proper sendoff, complete with band, tree, Dollies and cheerleaders. There were lots of hugs and cheers as the players mingled and posed for photos while taking photos of their own.

After the players left, the band, cheerleaders, tree and Dollies stayed to have dinner at the hotel. Most of them sat in the dining area watching the Louisville-Oklahoma game, but a few sat in the lounge, some eating and talking, a few napping. They needed their rest, considering how much energy they put into supporting the team.

Sophomore guard Hannah Donaghe was back with the team after missing several earlier games to recuperate from knee surgery. Junior guard JJ Hones was missing because she’s studying with a Stanford program in Spain while rehabbing from knee surgery.

One highlight of the Stanford-UConn game came at halftime when the jumbotron featured a moving tribute to Kay Yow, the beloved University of North Carolina coach who lost her battle with breast cancer earlier this season. As soon as the crowd realized who was being honored, everyone stood and clapped out of respect for her.

The score at that point was 37-24 in UConn’s favor. The final score was 83-64, a 19-point difference and one of UConn’s narrower margins of victory throughout its season. No doubt UConn hadn’t forgotten that the last team it hadn’t defeated was Stanford, which knocked it out in the Final Four last year to advance to the championship game won by Tennessee.

This year’s season-ending loss sent the team home early Monday morning. Now it’s time for them to focus on other aspects of campus life as well as next season, when 13 players with Final Four experience will be returning. That’s something to look forward to. In the meantime, we fans can cherish happy memories of a terrific group of young women who can take justifiable pride in their accomplishments as a team and as individuals.

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