February 28, 2011

Another season, another trophy

With a 99-60 victory over Oregon in Maples on Feb. 26, the Stanford women’s basketball team won its 11th consecutive Pac-10 season championship and its 20th overall in the league’s 25 seasons of women’s sports.

The win and championship were expected, so Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott was on hand to present the trophy to head coach Tara VanDerveer. (It’s no coincidence that this is Tara’s 25th season at Stanford.)

She in turn gave it to the team’s three captains – senior forward Kayla Pedersen, senior guard Jeanette Pohlen and junior forward Nneka Ogwumike – before all the players, coaches and staff lined up for photos.

With only the March 3 game against Cal remaining on the regular schedule, Tara used this game to rest the starters and give more game experience to the bench. Everyone got into the game, and no one played more than 22 minutes. The starters were on the bench for nearly half of the game.

Nneka returns to lineup

Nneka rejoined the starting lineup after missing two games with an ankle injury. She played only 12 minutes and finished with 4 points and four rebounds. Her sister, freshman forward Chiney Ogwumike, led the team in minutes with 22, recording 10 points and eight rebounds.

Jeanette was the high scorer with 20 points in 20 minutes. She added three rebounds, three assists and a steal to the stat sheet. Besides Jeanette and Chiney, those scoring in double figures were Kayla with 13 (plus 10 rebounds for a double-double), red-shirt sophomore center Sarah Boothe with 11, and fifth-year senior guard Melanie Murphy and freshman guard Toni Kokenis with 10 each.

The game also marked a milestone as the team won its 60th consecutive game at Maples – a team record. The streak started with the first game of the 2007-08 season, meaning that seniors Kayla, Jeanette, forward Ashley Cimino and guard Hannah Donaghe have never lost a home game.

Fans had a chance to hear from Kayla, Jeanette, Ashley and Mel after the game. Hannah, sidelined by an injury all season, was on a class field trip.

As the season nears its end and tournament time looms, “they really show a sense of urgency,” Tara said of the seniors.

Mel gets to be a senior twice

Introducing Mel, Tara noted that she celebrated “senior year twice.” Mel was part of senior night last year because she wanted to join the players with whom she had started her Stanford career. Tara also noted that Mel “went through major surgery (on her knee) to come back” this season. Thus she brings her maturity and sense of the game to the team.

“It’s just coming up so fast,” Mel said of her final year. “I’ve always appreciated all of your support.”

Looking ahead, the communication major said she’s working with Candice Wiggins, ’08. “We’re putting a few things together,” such as the trip to Spain that Candice will lead later this season. “I’m hoping to get into talent management,” she said, but she’s not sure if she’ll be based in California or her hometown of Brooklyn.

Coaches, teammates appreciate Ashley

Ashley was the next to be introduced. “Ashley’s one of the first out for practice,” Tara said, and “a very popular player on our team.”

“I feel a real sense of community here. (It’s) almost family out here,” said Ashley, who’s a long way from her home and family in Maine. “I have coaches who really appreciate what I do in practice” she said.

Her plans are unsettled for right now. The communication major has applied for grad school in Boston and for Teach for America.

According to its website, Teach for America members teach in low-income communities for two years. They receive training along with a salary, health insurance and retirement benefits through their schools.

Maples is magical for Jeanette

Associate head coach Amy Tucker took over the microphone to introduce Jeanette, also a communication major. “I don’t think I’ve seen any player improve as much as she has each year,” Amy said. “We’ll also miss Jeanette’s parents,” who have been to nearly every one of her games," even when the team went to Italy in August 2009.

“Thank you so much for all the support,” Jeanette said. “Every time we play at Maples, it’s just like magic.”

After graduation, “I’d like to keep playing overseas or in the WNBA,” she said. One fan asked what moment in her Stanford career is most special to her – aside from the end-to-end run and basket against Xavier that sent her team to its third consecutive Final Four last season.

“It has been just a great overall experience here,” Jeanette said, adding that the Dec. 30 defeat of UConn at Maples “was just so exciting.”

Jeanette’s father, John, told a story that reflects just how far she has come since she started playing as a young girl. “Jeanette’s first basket was for the wrong team,” he said.

Returning to the microphone, Tara told the fans, “Jeanette has grown so much in front of your eyes.”

Tara cites Kayla’s attributes

Then it was Kayla’s turn. “Kayla from day one has been so steady,” Tara said. She’s a “leader, worker, very talented, a very versatile player.”

Throughout the game, several fans waved signs that had Kayla’s picture on one side and “Thank you Kayla” on the other.

“Thank you for making this so special,” Kayla said to the fans. Two of her best memories came at Maples with the overtime win over Tennessee her freshman year and this year’s defeat of UConn. She also cited the defeat of Maryland in the Spokane regional that led to her first Final Four her freshman year.

Like Jeanette, she hopes to play for the WNBA or overseas. Otherwise, she’ll pursue a master’s degree in psychology. She has a double major in psychology and communication.

Someone asked her to name the toughest player on the team. “All the players on our team,” she responded. Their motto is “tough and together,” she said.

Overall, “players are getting faster and stronger. This year has been very physical,” she said. The best player she ever faced, she said, was Candace Parker, who graduated from Tennessee in 2008 and now plays for the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA.

As for any advice she would give to aspiring players, she replied, “Offensive skills, our coaches say.” And practice every day.

“Kayla’s an extremely intelligent player. She would be a good coach,” Tara said, citing her heads-up decision to call a time out when she got the final rebound in the Xavier game, which was tied. Thus the coaches had a chance to call the play that gave Jeanette the ball and Stanford its victory.

For now, though, “We still have a lot left in our season. We want to go undefeated,” Tara said.

February 25, 2011

Stanford stepping up

After junior forward Nneka Ogwumike sprained her ankle during the USC game Feb. 18, someone had to step up and account for all the points and rebounds she contributes.

Two freshmen -- Nneka’s sister Chiney, a forward, and guard Toni Kokenis -- helped to fill the void in the victory at UCLA on Feb. 20. Then against Oregon State at home on Feb. 24, red-shirt sophomore center Sarah Boothe helped to fill the bill with a team-high 16 points along with six rebounds in the 73-37 win.

“I was really excited for how well Sarah played,” head coach Tara VanDerveer told the Fast Break Club after the OSU game. “She did a great job.

Other stalwarts like senior guard Jeanette Pohlen with 10 points and senior forward Kayla Pedersen with 13 continued to do their part, while Toni and Chiney chipped in 10 points each. Sophomore forward Joslyn Tinkle started in Nneka’s place and scored five points to go with three rebounds, two assists and a block. Every uniformed player got into the game, thus ending with 32 points off the bench.

Game dynamics change without Nneka, Tara said. However, her absence means that others have to answer the call, thus creating greater team depth.

The evening started well with another excellent rendition of the National Anthem, this one by the Peninsula Women’s Choir, which received prolonged applause. Fans have been treated to some fine singing of late.

Applause for OSU players, coaches

Another noteworthy moment came shortly afterward when fans applauded as the OSU starting lineup and coaches, led by head coach Scott Rueck, were introduced. It was a symbol of fans’ respect for a program that has made remarkable progress in the wake of the disarray caused by the termination of Rueck’s predecessor and decimation of the roster due to transferring or quitting.

“Our fans are first class,” Tara said.

During halftime, some Stanford fans and graduates between the ages of 50 and 80 played “Bloomer Basketball.” Wearing actual bloomers, they followed rules from the 1950s and 1960s, when the women’s game used six players from each team. This half-court game allowed only two dribbles, had no three-second rule and confined players to their half of the court.

Another halftime treat was the introduction of the Stanford softball team.

Fan Appreciation Night

Fans were the focus of the post-game session, dubbed Fan Appreciation Night. Other schools envy the support that the Stanford women’s team gets from its fans, especially through the Fast Break Club and its website, said Eileen Roche, director of basketball operations. She acknowledged webmaster Marian Cortesi, as well as the others who write for the FBC and its website.

Sponsors of the freshmen’s lockers received photos of themselves with their freshmen from associate head coach Amy Tucker. Those sponsors are the Amy Tucker Fan Club for Toni, Su Schaffer and Joan Hinckley for Chiney, and Mary and Bob Dodge for guard Sara James.

Amy also recognized members of the executive board, which meets quarterly, and added that the auction fundraiser will return next year after a break this year.

Harriet Benson, an executive board member who has chronicled the FBC’s early days in her book, “Boosters Always Win,” presented the Fan Spirit Award to Wally Mersereau. Wally not only goes to most of the team’s away games but also reports on them for the FBC website.

“This is an easy thing to win. All you’ve got to do is show up,” Wally said. His name will be added to a silver trophy honoring the late Margie Santillan, an avid fan. “We have a great history of fans,” Tara said.

Post-game questions

Some of the questions from fans focused on officiating and the seeming increase in physical, sometimes rough play seen in some games. Tara expressed concern about this trend.

Women’s “basketball should be a finesse game,” she said, citing the late John Wooden, legendary coach of the UCLA team, who is being honored this year.

In the meantime, “We’re in the home stretch now,” Tara said.

“We’ve been working really hard on getting the ball inside” to the bigs, she said. Still, “we have so many things we want to work on” even 27 games into the season.

She also noted that the team has clinched at least a share of its 11th consecutive Pac-10 season title. One more win will put the Cardinal in sole possession of first place.

It was the team’s record-tying 59th straight victory in Maples, and it gave the team the No. 1 seed in the Pac-10 tournament. And just a bit of frosting on the cake – the AP and ESPN polls both rank Stanford No. 2 in the country behind UConn, which lost to Stanford on Dec. 30.

“I’d love to bottle this team,” Tara said. “It’s a great team to work with.”

February 13, 2011

It wasn’t pretty, but Stanford wins

Cardinal fans have become accustomed to winning games by comfortable margins of late. However, “we’re not going to beat everybody by 20 or 30 points,” associate head coach Amy Tucker reminded fans following the Stanford women’s basketball team’s 62-52 victory over Washington on Feb. 12 at Maples.

As expected, “it was a very physical game. It was a battle,” she said. “They played Jeanette (Pohlen) very tough,” she said, thereby limiting the standout senior guard to only 3 points.

On the other hand, “we got Nneka (Ogwumike) going in the second half,” so the junior forward finished with a team-leading 22 points plus nine rebounds. Her sister, freshman forward Chiney Ogwumike, contributed 21 points and 10 rebounds.

Add in senior forward Kayla Pedersen’s 13 points (plus five rebounds), and the three bigs accounted for all but 6 of the team’s points. Jeanette, as mentioned, had 3, while freshman guard Toni Kokenis tossed in the other 3 with the team’s only successful 3-pointer out of 21 attempts.

“It’s over. It’s good to get it out of our system,” Amy said. “I was happy to see that we stayed together.”

The Cardinal players also kept their composure in a game in which Washington was whistled for 27 fouls that resulted in four players fouling out. Stanford had 16 fouls. Washington also had 21 turnovers compared with Stanford’s 12. “We have a very good defensive team, one of the best,” Amy said.

Prior to hearing from Amy, fans had a chance to catch up with Sarah Dimson, ’01. She said she works for a social entrepreneurship organization based in Washington, D.C., but she travels a lot. She recently spent a year and a half in India and Pakistan.

Another traveler heard from was senior guard Hannah Donaghe. She expanded briefly on the recent Fast Break Club blog in which she talked about her summer in Mexico. She was there on an internship through the Stanford biology department and spent most of her time in a dry tropical forest near Oaxaca.

Prior to the game, fans had another chance to see the KerryCam video created by team manager Kerry Blake during the team’s trip to Arizona the previous week. The video caught the attention of the smiling and laughing Cardinal players, who were preparing to make their entrance onto the court.

Another treat was the singing of the National Anthem by the Peninsula Girls Chorus. It’s always gratifying to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung properly.

The first half started out slowly for both teams. The score was tied 8-8 at 10:07 and had inched up to only 11-10 with 7:48 to go. It was 24-18 at the half.

During halftime, fans were treated to precision dancing by the girls of the McGrath Irish Dancers from Dublin in the East Bay.

They were followed by a brief video, “Lacrosse-quet Ball” featuring some women’s lacrosse and basketball players. Then the entire women’s lacrosse team came onto the court and used their sticks to lob T-shirts to the crowd.

Up next – the L.A. schools.

Cardinal in the pink

It was Cardinal and pink all over as the Stanford women’s basketball team handed Washington a 100-59 loss Feb. 10 at Maples Pavilion.

Because it was a night for breast cancer awareness, everyone was asked to wear pink. Continuing a practice started by Joe Appel, father of Jayne Appel, ’10, senior guard Jeanette Pohlen’s dad, John, wore a pink tutu over his pants. In fact, it was handed down to him by Jayne’s dad. The pink shower cap wasn’t included. Instead, John wore a pink scarf. In the meantime, junior guard Lindy La Rocque’s father, Alan, wore pink pants. Several other fans wore tutus, too.

The Washington team donned pink shoes and socks to go with pink T-shirts for their warmups. The Stanford women likewise wore the pink T-shirts and pink shoelaces, and some sported pink ribbons or pink headbands. Senior forward Kayla Pedersen and freshman guard Toni Kokenis went a bit further by adding pink streaks to their hair.

The streaks were perhaps symbolic of the streaks occurring that night. Stanford won its 49th consecutive Pac-10 game, breaking its own record. It defeated WSU for the 52nd time (against no losses). It notched its 57th home victory, closing in on its record of 59. The team moved up to 21-2 for the season and 12-0 in the conference. And, by the way, it was head coach Tara VanDerveer’s 814th career victory.

Seeing other sides of Tara

The game also gave fans a chance to see Tara in a way that’s different from her game-day persona. In a video promoting the wrestling team during halftime, she wore a Stanford wrestler’s uniform and took on wrestling coach Jason Borrelli, who dubbed her “Tara the Terror.” The wrestling team then came onto the court and was met with cheers and applause.

In a KerryCam video created by manager Kerry Blake during last week’s trip to the Arizona schools, Tara teamed with red-shirt sophomore forward Sarah Boothe to challenge assistant coach Kate Paye and senior forward Ashley Cimino in a two-on-two basketball matchup. Kate and Ashley prevailed.

This same video showed Tara stopping the team bus after dinner and treating everyone to ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins – something the players thoroughly enjoyed.

Meet the managers

The videos were shown again to the Fast Break Club after the game, when fans got to meet Kerry and her fellow manager, Dorothy Boakye-Donkor, who are both seniors. Kerry has been with the team for four years, while Dorothy has logged three years. “These two are the finest (managers) we’ve ever had,” associate head coach Amy Tucker said.

“It’s a really great job,” Dorothy said, adding that they both love basketball. Their duties include doing the laundry every day, setting things up for practices and video sessions, running the clock and rebounding for players during practice, and keeping statistics.

Kerry, a sociology major, hopes to work for Nike after graduation. Dorothy, a political science major, has set her sights on law school.

Another FBC guest was Jenny Claypool, director of championships. She reported that fewer than half of WBB season ticket holders have bought tickets for the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament at 1 and 3:30 p.m. March 19 and 6:30 p.m. March 21 at Stanford. Sales to all fans totaled 1,870 as of Feb. 10. Citing how well the team is doing this season, she urged fans to get their tickets. “They need our support,” said Jenny, who has been in her post for 11 years.

The time for Stanford’s first game won’t be announced until 4 p.m. March 16, when the NCAA reveals the tournament brackets. All-session tickets are on sale now. Individual game tickets go on sale March 16. To buy tickets online, click here.

Tara’s views on the game and team

Finally Tara had some comments and answered questions. Recalling the Washington road game earlier this season and looking to the rematch in Maples on Feb. 12, she said, “Washington was one of our more physical games, and our team hasn’t forgotten.”

As for the just-completed Washington State game, “We started out just a little casual,” she said – so casual that Stanford found itself in the unaccustomed spot of lagging 28-26 with 6:51 to go in the first half.

After that, the Cardinal began to pull ahead, leading 46-32 at the half. One noteworthy stat from the first half is that the Cardinal had only two fouls, the first at 9:49 to go.

The score continued to widen during the second half even after all the starters were resting on the bench with 9:51 to go and the score at 76-43. Everyone had seen action by the end of the game, when Sarah made the layup that pushed the Cardinal total to 100.

“We had to make some adjustments” after the first half, Tara said. Then “our depth and our confidence took over” in the second half. Ten of the 13 players recorded 10 minutes or more on the court.

Pleased that “everyone played, and nobody got hurt,” Tara dished out praise to each player. “It’s a wonderful group to work with. They’re very coachable. The leadership is outstanding,” she said.