October 31, 2010

Great things are in store

What a difference three weeks make! When the Stanford women’s basketball team had its first open practice on Oct. 9, it was only their third full practice. Consequently, drills dominated the session.

Then on Oct. 30, the team had another open practice, followed by a Fast Break Club barbecue. With only a week to go before the first exhibition game, this practice looked more like a real game, starting with a 12-minute stretching session led by strength and conditioning coach Devan McConnell. In the meantime, a maintenance man repaired the unstrung net at the south end of the court.

After a short meeting with head coach Tara VanDerveer at the midcourt circle, the players formed the line that they’ll use to enter the court, led by senior forward Kayla Pedersen. They immediately engaged in an intricate pregame drill for passing, layups and 3-point shots.

The guards, joined by Kayla and sophomore forward Mikaela Ruef, then met at one end of the court to work on 3-pointers with assistant coach Kate Paye, while the other forwards met with Tara, associate head coach Amy Tucker and assistant coach Bobbie Kelsey. Joined by some male practice players, they worked mainly on layups.

Senior guard Hannah Donaghe, a brace on her left leg, sat out the practice. She’s lost for the season after tearing her ACL in practice earlier in the month, Tara said at the barbecue. Fifth-year senior guard Melanie Murphy, recovering from knee surgery after last season, helped out wherever she could, mostly by rebounding when her teammates took practice shots. She’s expected to return in January.

Junior guard Lindy La Rocque and senior forward Ashley Cimino took part in the warmups and drills but not the scrimmages. Both have had foot problems, but it is hoped that Ashley will be ready next week and Lindy after that, Tara said.

Forty minutes into the practice, the team switched their jerseys to the white side while nine male practice players – all Stanford students – were in red. They were coached by Bobbie, while the other three coaches worked with the women. The rest of the practice was filled with five 10-minute scrimmages between the men and women. They played with three referees and the 30-second shot clock.

The starting lineup for the first scrimmage included the returning starters from last season’s 36-2 team -- Kayla, senior guard Jeanette Pohlen at the point and junior forward Nneka Ogwumike – along with red-shirt sophomore center Sarah Boothe and sophomore forward Joslyn Tinkle. Jeanette started the scoring with a 3. In the meantime, the others either rode the exercise bikes or worked on various skills in pairs.

At the first timeout, two of the freshmen – guard Toni Kokenis and forward Chiney Ogwumike – replaced Sarah and Joslyn. These seven players worked in various combinations and ended the 10-minute session on top 22-9. Their play was marked by speed and good defense against the fast, athletic men.

The second session started with Jeanette, Sarah, Nneka, Mikaela and freshman guard Sara James. Other players, including junior guard Grace Mashore, subbed in and out. Again the defense was good, but offensive rebounds were a problem. Still, the women prevailed 25-15.

Session three starters were Jeanette, Nneka, Chiney, Toni and Kayla. All of the others saw action during the 10 minutes, which were marked by good sharing. Still, the men eked out a 16-15 win.

The men also scored 16 in the fourth session, while the women produced only 11 points. The starting five for this round were Mikaela, Nneka, Sarah, Jeanette and Sara, but everyone else got in.

Things began getting sloppy in the fourth and fifth sessions, probably as fatigue set in. Sarah, Joslyn, Mikaela, Grace and Sara were the starters in the fifth session, but again, others subbed in and out. The score ended 14-9 in the men’s favor.

After the scrimmages, the women gathered with the coaches and staff at center court, where Tara spoke for about five minutes. Then they headed to the locker room. The last players to leave were Kayla and Nneka, who took a few more practice shots.

More than 100 fans were on hand for the practice. By the time the barbecue began at Jimmy V’s, the crowd had grown much larger. While the fans enjoyed chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs or veggie burgers to go with all the trimmings and pasta as well as soft drinks and dessert, Tara introduced the players. (They were precluded from dining with the fans because of NCAA rules, she said.)

She started with Mel, the team’s eldest. Her rehab has progressed to running on the Alter G (anti-gravity treadmill), so it’s hoped that when Pac-10 play starts in January, “Mel will be ready,” Tara said.

Lamenting the loss of Hannah because of the ACL injury, Tara said, “We hate those three letters.” She asked Hannah if she had found the Forrest Gump shirt she wants to wear for Halloween because he wore leg braces as a kid.

Turning to Jeanette, Tara said that she had thought that the guard showed tremendous improvement between her freshman and sophomore years. “Wrong,” Tara said. She’s even better in her senior year, showing great leadership and maturity to go with her basketball skills. (That should give Cardinal opponents something to worry about.)

Tara said she’s looking forward to Ashley’s return to action for the first game.

As for Kayla, “she’s one of the most dedicated and steady players” on the team, Tara said, adding that it was helpful for Kayla to attend summer school. (Also in summer school were the three freshmen plus Nneka, Mikaela and Sarah.) Kayla is one of the team’s captains, along with Jeanette and Nneka.

Despite the foot problem, Lindy has been working hard, Tara said, and should be ready for action soon.

Grace worked hard during the summer and has done well in practice, Tara said. “I’m very impressed with how our whole team has been practicing,” she said.

To Nneka she said, “You were too nice to the guys today, Nneka.” She noted that Nneka has been tutoring her younger sister, Chiney, and has become a leader, part of the Big Three along with Jeanette and Kayla. “Nneka is a force in there,” Tara said.

Sarah, who missed last season after foot surgery but who practiced during the latter part of the season, is “in great shape,” Tara said. “She’s a big presence inside,” the coach said of the 6’5” post player. She’ll help to fill the void left by the graduated Jayne Appel.

Mikaela, who also had a good summer, can play in either the 3 or 4 spots. This particular day wasn’t her best, but “she’s been practicing extremely well,” Tara said.

Joslyn, who worked hard and slimmed down during her summer at home in Montana, missed some practices because of an ankle sprain, but she’s versatile and smart, the coach said.

Turning to the three freshmen, Tara said they’re doing well and have adjusted well to the pace of the college game. Their teammates have helped them.

Sara has been working with Kate to learn the 2 spot. She’s a good rebounder, and it’s hoped she can become as good a defender as the graduated Rosalyn Gold-Onwude.

Toni “is doing a great job as our point guard,” Tara said, citing her speed.

Chiney is similar to Nneka in talent and intelligence, but she’s more a perimeter player like Kayla, Tara said, adding, “She’s very talkative, which we really like.”

Overall, “I don’t know that we’ve ever had a better October,” the veteran coach said. “This group has been really special. Great things are in store.”

She praised the players for their maturity, talent, unselfishness and coachability. “They want to be great,” she said. “This is going to be a great year.”

In response to a fan’s question, Tara said she hasn’t decided on a starting lineup except for the Big Three. “We have a lot of choices.” It might change from game to game. She also expects to do a lot of substituting, keeping players fresher.

“You’re going to have a chance to cheer for a great, great team,” she said. She also said that she’s adding some new wrinkles to the offense, and “we’re way ahead defensively from last year.”

Asked to name the most improved players, she cited the Big Three along with Grace, Mikaela and Joslyn. She also praised her coaching staff for doing so well with recruiting. (The next crop of freshmen will sign their letters of intent in November.)

“We are looking forward to a great season,” she concluded as the fans left to go watch the San Francisco Giants play the Texas Rangers in the third game of the World Series and/or the Cardinal football team play at Washington.

Photos by Dave Cortesi

October 11, 2010

First look at the new edition

With its first exhibition game a mere four weeks away, the Stanford women’s basketball team went through its paces at an open practice Oct. 9 in Maples Pavilion.

Regular practices started Oct. 6, so it’s far too early to make predictions. Nevertheless, the three-hour afternoon session gave an estimated 50 fans some tantalizing previews of this 2010-11 team. It also gave them a look at how head coach Tara VanDerveer and her topnotch staff are starting to mold these 14 talented scholar-athletes into one cohesive, championship-seeking team.

There always are question marks at the beginning of a season as freshmen – three of them this year – try to fill the roster gaps left by graduation. The 2010 departures were led by two terrific starters, center Jayne Appel, now playing professionally with the San Antonio Silver Stars, and fifth-year guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, known for her outstanding defense. Ros, who reportedly works for Tesla Motors, attended part of the practice.

Another observer of note was guard Candice Wiggins, ’08, who is on campus completing her undergraduate degree while rehabbing from Achilles tendon surgery. She plays professionally with the Minnesota Lynx.

The practice began as the players ran onto the court and formed a circle with the coaches at center court. They then expanded their circle with senior guard Jeanette Pohlen leading them in individual dribbling exercises, followed by two-player passing drills led by assistant coach Kate Paye.

Individual work continued with shooting drills from the 3-point and free-throw lines. For the most part, the guards were at one end of the court, while the forwards were at the other.

More than an hour was devoted to basic skills such as running, passing, setting screens, dribbling, shooting, defending, rebounding, inbounding and moving the ball. It was during these drills that fans got a taste of Tara’s creativity. She introduced several complex drills that required some time to master, but eventually they went smoothly.

During one such drill, Kate advised all the players to be aware of their footwork so that they would be ready to shoot no matter where they were in relation to the basket.

Other drills involved various combinations of players – groups of two or three, for example. During another stretch, Kate worked with the guards at one end while associate head coach Amy Tucker and assistant coach Bobbie Kelsey worked with the bigs. Tara kept a close watch on the proceedings as she moved between them.

As the afternoon progressed, three male practice players joined the women in varied full- and half-court scrimmages. During one water break, fifth-year senior guard Melanie Murphy, whose participation is limited while she recovers from post-season knee surgery, talked animatedly with the men, apparently giving them pointers.

The session ended with free-throw practice at eight baskets arrayed around the court, followed by running from one end of the court to the other and then to closer marks along the floor. Freshman guard Toni Kokenis was the first to finish.

After another center-court circle for some final words from the coaches, the team waved to the fans and adjourned to the locker room.

Their next assignment came shortly thereafter, when they signed autographs for a long line of admirers at the Fan Fest preceding the Stanford vs. USC football game (won by Stanford).

As I said, it’s too early to make any concrete predictions about the season. Still, there were some impressions worthy of mention.

First, the coaches work well with the team. Every so often, one of them would talk quietly with an individual, demonstrating moves or giving advice. This was especially apparent with the freshmen. Likewise, returning players sought individual advice. On the other hand, the coaches were quick to shout out praise for good moves by individuals.

Second, the freshmen -- Toni, guard Sara James and forward Chiney Ogwumike -- will make positive contributions. They showcased their skills during the summer recreation program at Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco, but it was apparent that they needed the fine-tuning that they’re getting from their Stanford coaches.

Third, the three returning starters – Jeanette, senior forward Kayla Pedersen and junior forward Nneka Ogwumike – seem ready to lead the team on another winning run. All three showed their savvy, maturity and skill during the practice.

Fourth, the other returning players – seniors Ashley Cimino, forward, and Hannah Donaghe, guard; junior guards Grace Mashore and Lindy La Rocque; red-shirt sophomore center Sarah Boothe; and sophomore forwards Mikaela Ruef and Joslyn Tinkle -- seem determined to contribute as much as they can. There were many signs of progress from them.

Fifth, the entire team works hard, very hard. Even though they seemed to be enjoying themselves and each other, everyone was focused during the drills.

Sixth, the coaches will have a hard time deciding how to allocate playing time.

Finally, the fans are in for another great ride.!