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.

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