Toni Kokenis gave up soccer to focus on basketball during her senior year in high school. Now fans of the Stanford women’s basketball team are delighted with that decision.
The freshman point guard told the Fast Break Club about that decision after she and her teammates defeated Arizona 87-54 on Jan. 6 in Maples Pavilion. Toni played 19 minutes and contributed 4 points, one rebound, three assists and two steals. The stat sheet doesn’t show her other contributions such as her ability to get the ball up the court in a hurry and to elude opponents – skills that she may have honed while playing soccer.
People in her hometown of Oak Brook, Ill., might not have liked her decision to forgo soccer, especially after she scored the goal that won the state championship for her team in her junior year. Instead, she concentrated on basketball, a sport that she began playing when she was in first grade.
The Stanford coaches had asked her not to play another year of soccer to avoid injuries, said associate head coach Amy Tucker. Soccer is harder on the knees than basketball, she said.
Now that Toni is in college, she has found the speed and the need to learn everyone’s game are the biggest adjustments from high school. However, she and the other two freshmen, forward Chiney Ogwumike and guard Sara James, got a head start in summer school, giving them a chance to play pick-up games with several returning players. They also were joined by sophomore forward Mikaela Ruef and red-shirt sophomore center Sarah Boothe on a team in the recreational league at Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco.
On a personal level, Toni said she likes to tie-dye and draw and taught herself how to air brush during the summer. For her first day in the weight room, she wore a tie-dye shirt instead of Stanford gear, Amy said, but she was quickly advised of proper attire.
She’s the oldest of four, with two sisters and a brother. She once had a pet lizard, but other pets, even a turtle that belonged to her brother, are out of the question because she’s allergic to them.
“Her mom can cook,” Amy said, noting that Toni’s mother cooked dinner for the team during its visit to Chicago for the DePaul game in December. DePaul was Toni’s second choice for college because it’s close to home, but Stanford was her first choice.
After Toni left, head coach Tara VanDerveer spoke. “We didn’t start out that well,” she said of that night’s game, “but I was excited about how we played in the second half.” The Cardinal led all the way but let Arizona creep to within 2 points during the first half before closing it out at 40-33.
The team turned on the jets during the second half, shooting a torrid 70.4 percent and outscoring the Wildcats 47-21. All 12 healthy players saw action, and 11 of them scored.
Junior forward Nneka Ogwumike, whose status was doubtful after she landed on her shoulder during the Cal game, led with way with 24 points and eight rebounds. Chiney and senior forward Kayla Pedersen had identical double-doubles of 11 points and 11 rebounds. Senior guard Jeanette Pohlen also was in double figures with 13 points and five rebounds.
Tara singled out several players for praise. Among them were Chiney, who “gets to guard the best players” on the other teams. “Chiney is fearless,” Tara said.
Still buzzing about UConn
Although the evening’s opponent was Arizona, many fans were still buzzing about Stanford’s 71-59 defeat of UConn on Dec. 30, a Cardinal victory that snapped UConn’s unprecedented 90-game win streak in the NCAA. One could see “the focus in their faces, the confidence” with which her team played, Tara said. “Jeanette had a great game” with a career-high 31 points. “Kayla made hustle plays,” she said.
“You’re a special team when you win special games,” she said. “It was a phenomenally electric atmosphere” at the UConn game. “We felt confident.”
Besides the UConn game, fans were buzzing about Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck’s announcement earlier in the day that he would return to The Farm next year to earn his degree in architectural drawing. Thus he chose his education over a chance to leave early and probably go No. 1 in the NFL draft.
His decision probably had a lot to do with the cheers that followed the showing of a short video with several football players, including Luck, congratulating the women for their UConn game. The football team missed attending that game but watched it while in Miami preparing for their Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech, 40-12, on Jan. 3.
“It has been an exciting past two to three weeks,” Tara told the FBC. Since returning from the December road trip when the Cardinal lost to DePaul and Tennessee, the team has gone on a tear, defeating USF 100-45, Xavier 89-52, UConn 71-59, Cal 78-45 and now Arizona 87-54.
“We’re just going to get better,” she said.