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.!

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