September 17, 2009

Candice, Nicole highlight Lynx-Monarchs game

Fans of Stanford women’s basketball had a chance to see two fondly remembered alumnae – Candice Wiggins, ’08, and Nicole Powell, ’04 – square off against each other Sept. 13. That’s when the Fast Break Club journeyed to Sacramento’s ARCO Arena to see the Sacramento Monarchs, Nicole’s team, host Candice and the Minnesota Lynx in their final WNBA games of the season.

The Monarchs led most of the way and won 88-66. Nicole topped both teams in scoring with 27 points, including five of eight 3-pointers. She also set a franchise season scoring record with 567 points. She recorded 12 rebounds for a double-double in the game, along with four assists and a steal.

Plagued by foul trouble, Candice played only 22 minutes and scored 6 points to go with five rebounds, two assists and a steal. Thus a panel of five Stanford judges had no trouble naming Nicole the winner of the Candice-Nicole rematch.

Both teams are out of playoff contention with Minnesota ranking fifth and Sacramento sixth and last in the Western Conference. Sacramento’s overall 12-22 record leaves it last in the WNBA, finishing behind the New York Liberty at 13-21 and the Lynx at 14-20. The Lynx had started out well, but were set back when leading scorer Seimone Augustus suffered a torn ACL. Another top scorer, Nicky Anosike, was sidelined with a sore knee late in the season, dashing the team’s playoff hopes.

The FBC’s evening included a pre-game dinner, the game itself and a post-game gathering to hear Nicole and Candice along with former San Francisco Chronicle sports writer Michelle Smith.

The dinner (much healthier than last year’s) started off on a high note as fans arrived to a background recording of the Stanford band playing some of its signature tunes. Introduced by emcee Otis Watson, the guest speaker was Danette Leighton, vice president of marketing and Monarchs business operations. Danette is responsible for promoting the Monarchs and Kings as well as all events at ARCO. One of her overall goals, she said, is to promote women’s basketball at the professional and college levels.

Demographics show that 60 percent of the WNBA’s fan base is female. Its leading age group is 34-45 years old, but more men are going to games, and “We have pushed hard for families” to attend, she said. Attendance at that night’s game was expected to top 10,000. Official numbers show it at 10,212, but it didn’t seem like that many because the arena is so vast.

The league is likely to add an expansion team in the East next season and in the Midwest the following season. There also are hopes of adding one in the Bay Area, she said.

As for Nicole, who has been with the team for five seasons, “We can’t say enough about Nicole,” Danette said. She noted that when team members were asked about their favorite magazines, most players cited lightweight fare like People or others. Nicole’s favorite was The Economist – “spoken like a Stanford alum,” Danette said.

Even though the Lynx and Monarchs were playing mainly for pride, they played hard. WNBA games are faster and more physical than college games. And in this case, they’re much louder than Stanford games. Unlike Stanford’s Betty Ann Boeving, the announcer is shrill. The music and background sound effects are ear-splitting. Ear plugs are strongly advised. Still, the fans are enthusiastic and supportive, spanning a wide age range from tykes to seniors.

After the game, Michelle talked about the deteriorating situation at Bay Area newspapers, which are cutting staff and coverage to compensate for declining revenue. She decided to accept a buyout at the Chronicle this spring when it became apparent that the newspaper “was a little bit like the Titanic,” and she didn’t want to rearrange deck chairs.

Because she loved what she was doing – covering women’s basketball with a focus on Stanford and Cal – she has founded a Web site, LeftCoastHoops, that she hopes to have online within the next few weeks. This subscription site, which will have Pac-10 backing, she said, will offer a bigger picture of West Coast sports, “not all Stanford all the time.”

In the meantime, she’s writing for two other sites, AOL Fan House and CSN Bay Area. Some of her work will be found on WomenTalkSports, an aggregate site.

Her outlook for the Stanford women? “I think they’re going to be great,” ranking second in the nation behind the University of Connecticut. The pre-season schedule will be a good barometer of the team’s standing with tough opponents like UConn, Tennessee, Vanguard, Old Dominion, Rutgers, Duke and others. After that, “the Pac-10 will be a bit of a walk,” she said.

Next on the agenda was Candice, who thanked the fans for being there. “You don’t understand how much Stanford means to me,” she said. She then answered some questions.

On the Nike commercial that shows her boxing – It started as a photo shoot and turned out to be “the hardest thing I ever did in my life.” It was hard to look tough because “I was laughing at myself.”

On the hardest thing about playing in the WNBA – “The travel is pretty crazy. You learn to adapt. You have to adapt.”

By then a Lynx representative was urging her to wrap it up because the team bus was leaving. She still had time to pose for pictures with Nicole, who had arrived while Candice was speaking.

Like Candice, Nicole thanked the fans for being there. “It means so much to be part of the Stanford family,” she said. Part of her own family was there, too, including her parents, who were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.

Nicole has been with the Monarchs for five seasons. This was the first time the team missed the playoffs in six years, but it faced its own adversity with injuries at the start of the season.

“This league is competitive” she said, and “it gets better every single year” with better players coming out of college. She cited Candice along with Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks and rookie Courtney Paris on her own team. (Unfortunately, Courtney doesn’t seem to have lost weight. She scored 6 points and pulled down 14 rebounds, but she was slow getting up and down the court.)

In October, Nicole will return to Turkey, where her team won the national championship last year. Her Stanford teammate, Kristin Newlin, ’06, is there already. “Her game is growing,” Nicole said, adding that the WNBA could be an option for Kristin in the future.

Then it was time to pose for more pictures and sign autographs before the fans left. Those who drove back to the Bay Area that night had to use their windshield wipers as an early season rain fell, but they went back happy and looking forward to a new season.

September 2, 2009

Headed for Italy but looking ahead

The 13 returning members of the Stanford women’s basketball team have convened on campus for 12 hours of practice before flying off on their much-anticipated trip to Italy on Friday, Sept. 4.

Although ostensibly preparing her veteran players for their four games in Italy, head coach Tara VanDerveer clearly has a more important agenda – preparing the team for its rigorous 2009-10 schedule and a hoped-for return to the Final Four. While going through drills to polish the triangle offense and add some new twists, Tara said she’s trying to prepare for the defenses used by some of the team’s major opponents. If defenses focus on senior post player Jayne Appel, who was the team’s go-to player last season, Tara wants the perimeter players to make 3-point shots.

“We’re identifying things that we didn’t do well last season,” she said during the first practice session the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 1. One technique that the team worked on was screening – blocking off an opponent so that a Stanford teammate can get to the basket. “We are not going to beat people one-on-one. We have to play together,” she said. “Develop a screener’s mentality. … You don’t have to be nice. Nail ’em.”

During another drill, she saw that someone had committed a turnover. “Have I told you yet how much I hate turnovers?” she asked. They’re what kept the Cardinal from going to the title game at the 2009 Final Four, she said.

Besides screening and the triangle offense, the practice covered 3-pointers and free throws. Gathering the team around her at the end of the two hours, Tara praised them for a good practice. “If we get better every practice, we’re going to have a good season. …Get better and help someone else get better,” she said.

The players were taking that advice even before hearing it, encouraging one another during the drills, complimenting good plays and asking the coaches questions if they didn’t quite understand something. Everyone looked good and worked hard.

Although all 13 returnees were in uniform, sophomore center Sarah Boothe and junior guard Hannah Donaghe were limited in what they could do. Sarah, who had surgery for a stress fracture in the spring, was wearing a walking boot. Hannah is still rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn ACL early this year. They’re both progressing well, said associate head coach Amy Tucker, but there’s no ETA on when they’ll be cleared to play.

Both of them took part in a ball-handling drill that involved dribbling two balls at once and some passing. Later, while Amy and assistant coach Bobbie Kelsey worked with the posts – Jayne, junior Ashley Cimino and sophomore Nneka Ogwumike – Sarah practiced free throws. Later Jayne, who is being careful after arthroscopic surgery on her knee after last season, began rebounding for Sarah, then switched places to practice her own FTs.

In the meantime, assistant coach Kate Paye worked with the perimeter players – the guards plus forwards Kayla Pedersen, junior; and Michelle Harrison, senior – on 3s. Later, senior guard Melanie Murphy, who had toe surgery after the season, took a break from drills and joined Jayne, Sarah and Hannah in practicing FTs.

Senior point guard JJ Hones, who tore her ACL last fall and was just recently cleared to play, took part in all of the drills and looked sharp, especially on her 3s.

Amy called the session “a great early first practice. This is a bonus” in preparing for the season. She also cited the players’ skill development over the summer and their good conditioning. Sophomore guard Grace Mashore, for example, has returned in better shape and moves better. She’s always been a good shooter.

There are two practices a day in the new practice facility just south of Maples Pavilion. Connected to Maples by an underground corridor, the facility has eight baskets to allow ample space for everyone to practice shots and other skills. A weight room adjoins the gym.

In an interview for the Stanford Bootleg, Tara said she believes that having so many baskets will improve the shooting. Because Maples had been shared with volleyball and the men’s basketball team, sometimes only two baskets were available to her team. “The new facility will really help us with our practicing. We’ll be able to get more shots up,” she said.

Even though JJ and Jayne have been cleared to play, neither will play in Italy, nor will Hannah and Sarah. “That’s just being conservative,” Amy said after the practice. Thus, with only nine players scheduled for action, “This is a good opportunity for some other people to get more playing time,” Amy said, citing Michelle, Ashley, Mel and Grace, who all saw limited time last year

Also scheduled to play are Kayla, Nneka, sophomore guard Lindy La Rocque, junior point guard Jeanette Pohlen and fifth-year guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude.

The 13 players and four coaches, plus trainer Marcella Shorty and manager Kerry Blake, will fly from San Francisco at about noon Friday, Sept. 4, and arrive in Frankfurt, Germany, about 10 a.m. local time Saturday – nine hours ahead of the West Coast. About two hours later, they’ll take a two-hour flight into Rome.

They’ll spend most of the next two days – Sept. 6 and 7 – sightseeing in Rome, highlighted by a tour of the ancient city and the Vatican. The team plays its first game at 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 7, against Fortitudo Basket Pomezia.

In keeping with tradition, the players will exchange small gifts before each game. Cardinal players usually give their counterparts a Stanford pin or bracelet. Because Italy has no college teams, its club players are paid, Amy said.

From Rome, the Stanford travelers will go to Florence for two more days of sightseeing, culminated by a game against AD Basket Ducato Lucca at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9.

The next day will find them headed to a marina in Mestre, where they’ll take a boat to their hotel in Venice for more sightseeing and an 8 p.m. game against Giants Marghera.

All of Friday, Sept. 11, will be devoted to sightseeing in Venice. The next day’s destination is Como and the fourth and final game – against Sesto San Giovanni. (Jillian Harmon, ’09, plays for Comense in Como, as does Brooke Smith, ’07, but Brooke will still be with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury in the U.S.)

The last full day in Italy, Sunday, Sept. 13, will find the Stanford travelers aboard a boat for a sightseeing tour of Lake Como, followed by more sightseeing on land.

Departure is scheduled for 1:25 p.m. Monday, Sept. 14, from Milan, with arrival in San Francisco at 7:10 p.m. PDT.

Incoming freshmen Mikaela Ruef and Joslyn Tinkle will join their new teammates the next day to begin two hours of basketball workouts with the coaches and six hours of strength and conditioning each week until regular practices start in mid-October. Classes start Sept. 21.

NCAA rules don’t allow the two freshmen to go to Italy because they’re not considered officially enrolled until fall classes start, Amy said. Their attendance at summer school doesn’t count.

Although the itinerary says that each traveler may check two bags and have one carry-on, it suggests limiting the checked bags to just one because of the boat transfer in Venice. However, the itinerary also lists time for shopping as well as sightseeing, so perhaps packing a folding bag into one checked bag on the trip there will provide space for treasures from the shopping excursions.

Finally, Amy said the team hopes to transmit some blogs about their adventures during the trip.