April 24, 2010

Final salute to the 2009-10 team

“It’s a bittersweet evening.”

That’s how head coach Tara VanDerveer so aptly summed up the sentiment at the women’s basketball team’s awards banquet. “This is our official last day together as the 2009-10 team,” she told the crowd of nearly 300 gathered at the Stanford Faculty Club on April 22. It also was a chance for fans to see the players dressed up – and they all looked lovely.

Tara’s remarks opened a roller-coaster evening of emotions from elation, as seen in a video summarizing the season, to deep sadness, as exemplified in senior center Jayne Appel’s emotional farewell.

Although this dinner traditionally includes the announcement of individual awards such as most outstanding player, best defensive player and most improved player, Tara and her coaching staff decided to forgo them this year because of the impressive record amassed by the team and the numerous individual honors garnered through the year.

Tara ticked off just a few of the team’s record-breaking accomplishments, starting with 28 regular season wins, its first undefeated Pac-10 season (plus Stanford’s seventh Pac-10 tournament championship) and the most rebounds ever (1,719 total, or 45.2 per game, an 11.8 margin over opponents). In addition, the team held opponents to a record-low 53.9 points per game and a record-low field-goal percentage of .339 per game. All this came during “the most competitive schedule ever,” she said.

The team went to its third consecutive Final Four and played in its second national championship game in three years. Along the way it amassed a 36-2 record overall, with both of its losses coming to UConn. The first was an away game in December, when the score was 80-68. In the national championship game in San Antonio on April 4, the score was 53-47.

Both times Stanford led at the half, and the December score marked one of the lowest margins of victory for the two-season undefeated Huskies. The score in San Antonio was UConn’s lowest margin of victory this season and the first that wasn’t by double digits. And lest we forget, Stanford is the last team to have beaten UConn, defeating the Huskies in the semi-final game at the Final Four in Tampa Bay in 2008.

Tara interspersed praise for each player with thanks to everyone from the Stanford administration and her coaching staff – Amy Tucker, Kate Paye and Bobbie Kelsey – to the medical staff and all the other people who help the team, coaches and women’s basketball program in general to be so successful. She commended her coaching colleagues as “the very best at what they do,” including teaching, scouting and recruiting. She then called each class to the front and introduced the players.

Freshmen forwards Mikaela Ruef & Joslyn Tinkle.

Mikaela, who is “very intelligent,” proved valuable in practice, learning the opponents’ plays. Now “the challenge is to be consistent,” she said.

Joslyn, who missed some games after a foot injury early in the season, was “the top big off the bench.” She credited the Montana native with versatility and great instincts and said “the Big Sky is the limit” for Joslyn.

Sophomores – forwards Sarah Boothe & Nneka Ogwumike, guards Grace Mashore & Lindy La Rocque

Sarah was red-shirted this season after foot surgery. However, she eventually became able to practice and “did a great job for our team in practice every day.” She pushed everyone to do well, and “I haven’t coached anyone who loves basketball more than Sarah,” the coach said.

Grace “stepped up her play in practice” and helped the team prepare for its opponents.

Lindy “contributed more behind the scenes in practice.” She also was the one who, in casual conversation with Tara, suggested the play that led to Stanford’s 55-53 victory over Xavier (more on that later) to clinch a trip to the Final Four.

As for Nneka, “how far (she) has come since last year’s banquet,” Tara said. She led the team in scoring with 704 points, in rebounds with 376 (a season record), in free throws with 172 and in field goal percentage, .598, garnering an armful of conference and national honors along the way. Not only that, “you’re just scratching the surface of what you can be,” Tara told her.

Juniors – forwards Ashley Cimino & Kayla Pedersen, guards Jeanette Pohlen & Hannah Donaghe, red-shirt guards Melanie Murphy & JJ Hones

Although Mel and JJ are seniors academically, each has another year of eligibility after red-shirting with knee injuries. They’re still having knee problems. JJ, on crutches, recently had microfracture surgery, while Mel will undergo the same procedure soon.

Ashley “contributes in practice by knowing what we’re doing,” Tara said.

As for Jeanette, “Everyone who watches ‘Sports Center’ saw Jeanette’s coast-to-coast” play that defeated Xavier in the final 4.4 seconds of the regional final in Sacramento. “It may rank as the all-time best play in Stanford women’s basketball history,” Tara said.

And even though Jeanette was named the team’s most improved player last season, “she really improved this season.” She led the team in 3-pointers with 71 and in assists with 167. She also was “an underrated defensive player” with a team-leading 44 steals.

Hannah was on the sidelines until mid-January after tearing her ACL late last season. Now that she’s able to play, “We need what Hannah does,” Tara said. The speedy guard has a great jump shot, the coach said, comparing her to Krista Rappahahn, ’06. “Be healthy, Hannah,” she said.

“Kayla led us in so many ways,” the coach said, starting with minutes played – 1,274. She was second in free throws with 130, in 3-pointers with 55, in assists with 101, in rebounds with 362 and in total points with 599. Like Nneka, she also was accorded an array of conference and national honors.

Mel “had an excellent fall,” then missed some games because of injury, Tara said, but she’s “vice president of the charge club. Get well, Mel.”

Referring to JJ, Tara said, “It would be great to have her back pain-free, too. She’s a very heady player.” In addition, she showed “such great compassion and sportsmanship” in her defining moment during a home game against Pepperdine. When a Pepperdine player went down with an apparent knee injury, JJ left the bench and helped her off the court. Despite her own injuries during her Stanford career, JJ’s motto seems to be Winston Churchill’s – “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.” Tara added, “I’m not giving up either.”

Seniors – Forwards Michelle Harrison & Jayne Appel, fifth-year guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude

Standing in front of framed jerseys with the players’ numbers – 5 for Michelle, 2 for Jayne and 21 for Ros – Tara cited some of their collective accomplishments during the past four years. In addition to the three trips to the Final Four, they amassed a total of 133 victories and three seasons with 30+ victories, a first for a senior class, and they endured only one loss at Maples over the entire four years.

Michelle “is the hardest worker in practice. She pushes herself in practice and played in any position we needed,” Tara said. The art major also is a talented artist. For her senior project, she did a black-and-white drawing of the face of Tara’s 13-year-old golden retriever, Scout, framed it and gave it to Tara, who seemed quite touched.

Ros, over the course of her five years at Stanford, played in the most games, 148. “Coaching Ros has been an incredible experience,” Tara said. Perhaps her greatest strength is “what she didn’t allow her opponents to do.” She was the co-defensive player of the year in the Pac-10, but “in my book, Ros is the national defensive player of the year.” Guarding each team’s top scorer, she held them all to way below their averages. “Ros just did a phenomenal job” and never fouled out.

Jayne “may have worn No. 2, but in my mind she’s one of a kind” Tara said. “Jayne leaves Stanford as a two-time State Farm All-American” and with many, many other honors. She broke Lisa Leslie’s Pac-10 rebounding record, thus ranking as Stanford’s best all-time rebounder with 1,263 and third-leading scorer with 2,125 points, behind Candice Wiggins, ’08, with 2,629 and Kate Starbird, ’97, with 2,215.

“Jayne helped put Stanford back on the map as an elite basketball program,” the coach said, citing Jayne’s career-high 46 points against Iowa State in the NCAA tournament last year. Fighting injuries toward the end of the season, “She was a true warrior. She didn’t want to let her team or her coaches down.” The San Antonio Silver Stars recognized her talents by making her their top pick in the WNBA draft earlier this month. With training camp scheduled to start soon, she was to fly to San Antonio early the next morning after the banquet.

She recently returned from Connecticut, where the USA Basketball Senior Team was training. She stayed on the sidelines, but Kayla and Nneka were in action as members of the younger Select Team, training at the same time.

Hearing from the seniors

“This is a tremendous honor just to be a part of this team,” Michelle said. “I was inspired by my teammates to work hard every day. These will be my friends forever.”

Jayne quipped, “None of us are going after Ros,” who is known for her eloquence. She then thanked the medical people who “kept me in one piece.” Pausing often to control her emotions, she said, “It’s been a tremendous ride. My teammates have meant everything to me. (They’re) the best of friends.”

“To be a part of the Stanford tradition is a great honor,” she said. Referring to her coaches, she credited Kate and Bobbie for changing the program during their three years with the team. “Amy has been more than a coach to me” by lending moral support. She accompanied Jayne and her parents to the WNBA draft earlier this month. And to Tara she said that the Final Four loss to UConn “hurt so bad because of the tradition that has been passed down. We wanted to bring you another national championship.”

Finally, she gave some advice to the freshmen: “It goes really fast, so enjoy it.”

After telling Jayne, “You took me through an emotional roller coaster,” Ros gave similar advice to all of her returning teammates: “I really urge you to cherish every moment,” starting with the next day’s 7 a.m. workout. “I think it will be a national championship team” next year, she said.

“My mother (who was briefly Tara’s college roommate) introduced me to the game when I was 4.” Now basketball “is done for me.” Therefore, “I was very aware of the finality of everything” throughout the season. “There’s nothing besides basketball that’s ever made me feel so great”, she said.

Ros credited the coaches with giving her life lessons – how to work hard, how to be consistent every day, how to be competitive and how “to push through adversity.” Not only that, “we have fun as a team,” she said, crediting Bobbie and Kate.

Recalling the season in video

Next came a video created by Bud Anderson, director of creative video, highlighting each game and each player along with the hard work that goes on in the weight room. Some of the plays elicited gasps and applause from the audience because they were so well executed.

The official program ended on a humorous note with the presentation of the team’s choice for the Lizard Lung Award, a light-hearted tradition honoring the team’s most gullible player. Sarah, who won it last year, did the honors, noting that although the award usually goes to a freshman, this year it goes to Hannah. She then cited some instances, such as Hannah wondering if she needed an Italian passport for the team’s trip to Italy last summer, what the time difference is between California and Washington State, and what all the recent fuss over Tiger Woods was about.

Hannah responded, “I actually know everything that I was asking. I just wanted to check” to see if others did.

“Hannah, you’re a very good sport and the first upperclassman to win the award,” Tara said.

The coach closed the festivities with these remarks – “We will see you next season, and bring all of your loud friends.”

Afterward, fans and players continued to mingle. Eventually, the players and coaches assembled so that fans could photograph them together for the last time.

April 10, 2010

Final Four reflections – so very close

First of all, let me express my deepest respect and admiration for the Stanford women’s basketball team, coaches and staff for everything they’ve accomplished this season. Even though the season didn’t end as they had hoped, they have every reason to hold their heads high.

In addition, my congratulations to center Jayne Appel for being drafted to the San Antonio Silver Stars. I’m sure she’ll have a successful WNBA career. She, too, has my respect and admiration for all that she accomplished during her four years at Stanford and especially for her gutsy performance throughout the NCAA tournament and at the championship game. She played through pain, but – in the unselfish manner in which she has always conducted herself – she didn’t give up. She gave her all – a true warrior.

Friendly people in San Antonio

Now some impressions of San Antonio: The weather was hot and humid, but the people were friendly. They were impressed with Stanford, especially after forward Nneka Ogwumike’s 38-point, 16-rebound performance in Stanford’s 73-66 victory over Oklahoma in the semi-final game on April 4. At lunch the next day, two restaurant employees commented on her talents and the fact that she had set a Final Four semi-final record for scoring.

Prior to that game, fans gathered at the Hotel Contessa, where the team was staying, for a social and send-off. Red-clad fans were arrayed along balconies on the second and third floors of the hotel, which has a lofty atrium and outdoor seating along the famed River Walk.

Joined by the Tree, the cheerleaders and Dollies, the band played for about 10 minutes until the team began to assemble. Forward Joslyn Tinkle arrived first, waving to her family and taking photographs. As her teammates joined her, the fans chanted, “Just two more wins.” The band continued to play as someone carried a box of Easter baskets to the bus.

Three whistles and a drum roll led to “All Right Now,” with the players doing a little dance before high-fiving the fans who formed an aisle as they walked to the bus. Once all were aboard, the bus took off, escorted by two motorcycle officers with lights flashing and sirens sounding.

The semi-final game against Oklahoma

The Alamodome atmosphere was noisy and electrifying as the fans of Stanford, Oklahoma, Baylor and Connecticut milled about wearing their teams’ colors. Being relatively close to San Antonio, Oklahoma and Baylor seemed to have the largest turnouts, but UConn drew a large crowd, too. Mostly seated behind the Stanford bench, Cardinal fans filled about two sections and made plenty of noise.

One nice feature of the Alamodome is that in addition to showing how many points and fouls each player had, the Jumbotron showed her rebounds and the percentages for each team’s shooting, 3-pointers and free throws. Displays at each end of the arena recorded assists, rebounds, steals and blocks.

However, before and after each game and during halftimes, there were long lines at the concession stands, souvenir stands and women’s restrooms.

Few Stanford and Oklahoma fans left after their game. They were eager to see the matchup between undefeated UConn and Baylor with its 6'8" freshman, Brittney Griner. Stanford players arrived about 10 minutes into the game and sat where the band had sat. Of course they were loudly cheered by their fans. They stayed for the rest of the first half of this highly physical game, then left. UConn won, 70-50

A day off for sightseeing

Monday was a day off, a chance to go sightseeing along the River Walk and at the Alamo. While strolling along the River Walk, Stanford fans waved and smiled at each other. When my walk took me past the team hotel, I saw Joslyn, who was wearing her practice uniform, sitting with her family under an umbrella at an outside table.

That evening, most fans were caught up in the men’s Final Four championship game between Butler and Duke. It was an exciting, tight game that came down to a missed Butler basket at the buzzer before Duke finally won. Most non-Duke fans were hoping for a repeat of “Hoosiers” as the Indianapolis team nearly pulled a major upset.

On to the championship game

Tuesday, April 6, was game day – Stanford vs. UConn for the national championship. Once again Cardinal fans assembled for a rally, this time at the Rio Rio Cantina restaurant near the team hotel. When the band and its contingent arrived, the Tree guy was wearing a “Fear the Tree” T-shirt.

The restaurant was decorated with red and white balloons and banners provided by staff members from the Stanford athletic department. Staffer Heather Owen, ’98, served as emcee.

After enjoying Tex-Mex appetizers and other refreshments, the fans walked to the hotel for the send-off. As the band played, the players came down to the lobby, where forward Ashley Cimino had been chatting with her family. There were lots of hugs among other families as her teammates joined her.

Standing outside the entry, all the players smiled, clapped and took pictures as the band played. Fans chanted “One more win” as the players posed for pictures. They joined in on another chant, “This is our year. This is our team.” Forward Sarah Boothe pretended to conduct the band for the team’s traditional entry fanfare, and all the players joined the band as it spelled out Leland Stanford Junior University, etc. Then, once again, the smiling players danced to “All Right Now” before heading for the bus and their police motorcycle escort to the Alamodome.

Hopeful at the half

The game was preceded by an impressive flag presentation by military personnel from nearby bases. At the half, they stood along the sidelines as Vice President Joe Biden shook hands and chatted with them. His presence explained the added security such as metal detectors at the entry gates.

Since UConn was the first No. 1 seed and Stanford was the second No. 1 seed, the Cardinal wore their red road uniforms for the first time in either the Pac-10 or the NCAA tournament. The first half was an exceptionally low-scoring affair. Neither team had much luck shooting, but Stanford led 20-12 when the buzzer sounded, giving its fans reason for cautious optimism.

The second half saw UConn begin its rally. The Huskies perhaps had an advantage because Jayne fell awkwardly and aggravated her ankle injury. She hobbled to the bench for retaping and, we learned later, a pain shot, and returned to the game a few minutes later. She gritted it out but finished the game scoreless for the first time in her college career. Still, she had seven rebounds and two assists in her 30 minutes of playing time. When she was on the court, she diverted defensive attention from her teammates and no doubt inspired them with her toughness.

The final score was 53-47 in UConn’s favor. It was the closest margin of victory in the Huskies’ 78-game winning streak and its first by single digits – stark evidence of how close Stanford came to claiming the championship trophy.

After the game, I drowned my sorrow in chocolate ice cream at Amy’s Ice Cream (the name has a familiar ring) at the Alamo Quarry shopping center north of downtown. Two men who are fans of the Southern Methodist University women’s team and who had been at the game struck up a conversation. Both said they believed the outcome might have been different if Jayne hadn’t been injured.

That was the consensus of the dozen or so fans I chatted with at the airport the next day. And we all agreed that things are looking good for a fourth consecutive Final Four appearance next year.

In the meantime, we enjoyed a great ride this year thanks to an exceptional group of young Stanford women.

April 1, 2010

Sendoff to San Antonio

“Hopefully the third time’s the charm.” Fifth-year senior guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude summed up the goal of the Stanford women’s basketball team on April 1 as it got ready to leave for San Antonio and its third consecutive NCAA Final Four.

“We’ve got high expectations,” she told the crowd of about 100 fans along with the band, cheerleaders, Dollies and Tree as well as TV cameras. Just then a campus fire truck rolled by, tooting its horn, and the crowd began chanting, “Two more wins.” That’s all it will take – victories over Oklahoma and the winner of the UConn-Baylor game – and the Cardinal will bring home the coveted trophy.

The afternoon sendoff began with a serenade by the band as the coaches and team began to assemble after a final practice in Maples. Two people held up a banner reading, “Public Safety wishes the Stanford women’s basketball team the best of luck at the NCAA Final Four tournament.”

Videographer Bud Anderson served as an emcee, saying “We are very excited to be here today.” He asked the crowd for its help in filming a video of some informal Stanford vs. Oklahoma contests, such as the coolest band, best cheerleaders, best fans, best cheer (“Go, Stanford!”) and best mascot (“Go, Tree!”). He had to scratch his head at best musical, though. “We don’t really have that,” he said. Rodgers and Hammerstein apparently didn’t get this far west.

Head coach Tara VanDerveer told the fans that when she got home Monday night after Stanford had won the Sacramento regional with a 55-53 last-second win over Xavier, her dogsitter had put up a big sign, “Jeanette for president.” Guard Jeanette Pohlen may be a bit young for that job, but she certainly won Stanford hearts March 29 when her full-court dash and successful layup made her the Cardinal heroine.

Even though Stanford has been to the Final Four for the past two years, “It does not get old,” Tara said. “It gets better and better.”

“Our team has worked extremely hard to get here,” she said, thanking everyone for their support. “We’re not just going to Texas for barbecue,” she concluded.

After the band had ended the short ceremony with “It’s All Right,” the players mingled with the fans. Ros and forwards Joslyn Tinkle and Nneka Ogwumike were among those interviewed by TV reporters. Tara gave some last pats and treats to her two friendly golden retrievers, Buddy and Scout.

Then the band, etc., filed into one bus, while the team and its entourage boarded another before driving off to the airport for a 4 p.m. charter flight to San Antonio, where we hope the team will prove that the third time is indeed the charm.

Here's a video of the team sendoff rally from Stanford News Service.