October 23, 2011

Let the games begin

Fans of Stanford women’s basketball got a taste of what’s to come when they attended an open practice Oct. 21 in Maples Pavilion. And while no one’s predicting how the season will end, this preview promised some exciting times.

It was especially intriguing because it gave fans their first look at the new crop of freshmen. The team has what might be an unprecedented six newcomers, but only five were present. The sixth, guard Amber Orrange, had a cold and couldn’t attend.

Of the nine returning players, only eight saw action. The ninth, junior forward Mikaela Ruef, was there and in uniform but mostly stayed on the sidelines because of a sore foot. However, she didn’t waste her time. When she wasn’t on the exercise bike, she was being put through conditioning paces by Susan King Borchardt, ’05, the team’s new sports performance coach.

As the session began at 4 p.m., Eileen Roche, director of basketball operations, handed out rosters to help fans identify the freshmen. She later estimated that about 170 people were there by the end of the three hours.

After 15 minutes of drills as the coaches watched, Susan took over and led stretching and warmup exercises. Fifteen minutes later, everyone gathered at the center circle as head coach Tara VanDerveer spoke to them.

Then came something familiar to fans – the traditional opening run onto the court, this time led by senior guard Lindy La Rocque. I don’t recall seeing any misses on the subsequent layup drill.

Associate head coach Amy Tucker and assistant coach Kate Paye worked with the guards as they shot 3s at one end of the court. Assistant coach Trina Patterson, another new addition to Tara’s staff, worked with the bigs on the other end. Tara alternated between the groups before going to the microphone to welcome the fans.

Most of the rest of the practice was taken up by three 15-minute scrimmages between the white and red teams, overseen by three referees. On the white team for the first round were freshman forward Taylor Greenfield, freshman guard Jasmine Camp, sophomore guards Sara James and Toni Kokenis, sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike, junior forward Joslyn Tinkle and senior forward Nneka Ogwumike.

Their red-team opponents were freshman guard Alex Green, freshman forwards Erica Payne and Bonnie Samuelson, Lindy, senior guard Grace Mashore, senior center Sarah Boothe and two male practice players.

Even though the 6’2” Nneka is 3 inches shorter than Sarah, she won the tipoff. Jasmine and Lindy started as the point guards for their teams, but Toni played at that position, too.

Various combinations of players saw action as they were subbed in and out during the scrimmages, all of which were characterized by lots of hustle by everyone. Worth noting in the first scrimmage is that Alex beat everyone on two fast breaks despite a brace on her knee. The score ended at 45 white to 32 red.

The second scrimmage saw Sara, Jasmine, Nneka, Chiney, Alex, Sarah and Lindy in white. Erica, Toni, Joslyn, Sara, Bonnie and Grace wore red, as did the two men. There was a scary moment when Nneka fell clutching her elbow. Trainer Marcella Shorty checked on her and soon had her on her feet and going to the sideline. Not long after that, Nneka reappeared with a red pad on her elbow, returned to action and seemed none the worse for wear – a great relief to everyone.

This scrimmage was highlighted by some good assists by Sarah, two 3s in a row by Taylor and two steals in a row by Erica. The score ended at 30 red to 22 white.

For the final scrimmage, the white team fielded Toni, Nneka, Chiney, Joslyn, Lindy, Taylor and Erica. Players in red were Sarah, Grace, Alex, Jasmine, Sara, Bonnie and the men. The final score was white 34, red 28.

Overall, the team looked good for this early in the season. It was good to see Sarah playing with no sleeve on her right shoulder after undergoing surgery during the summer. She seemed to play with more confidence and hit her layups more consistently. Sara also played with a lot more confidence and hit several 3s. Lindy had some nice 3s, too. And of course the Ogwumike sisters were terrific. One of their specialties is putbacks: If one misses her shot, the other is there to rebound and put the ball in.

The scrimmages were followed by free-throw practice. Everyone then gathered again at the circle for some words from Tara and team physician Dr. Elaine Lambert.

After the practice, 132 fans packed neighboring Jimmy V’s for a dinner of salad, fresh fruit, chicken, pasta with a choice of sauces, steamed vegetables and cookies.

While the fans ate, the team arrived, and Tara briefly introduced each player, starting with the seniors.

She said that Lindy, who usually is a 2 guard, was playing the point in the place of the speedy Amber. Introducing Grace, she said, “Our seniors are doing a fabulous job of mentoring our freshmen.”

Nneka “doesn’t need any introduction,” Tara said. “We’re looking forward to a great senior year.”

Of Sarah, who is a senior academically but a junior athletically after red-shirting her sophomore year, Tara said, “We are so excited that Sarah’s 100 percent and healthy. She played in pain” with her shoulder last season.

Joslyn “worked hard this summer. She tore up in the Pro-Am,” Tara said, referring to the summer recreational league at Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco. Joslyn was the standout on her team, which included all of the freshmen except Alex, who was still recovering from ACL surgery during her senior year of high school.

Mikaela also worked hard during the summer. To Sara she said, “You had a great scrimmage today.”

Toni had “another outstanding day. All of our guards are pushing each other, and Toni is leading the way.”

Chiney, among other assets, “plays within herself.” “This is a hungry team,” she added. “Our inside game has a lot of experience.”

She described Bonnie as “high energy, always positive. She does so many things well.”

Taylor “has had great practices.”

Entering college “is a big adjustment for freshmen, (but these) freshmen catch on quickly, and they’re fast.”

Even though Alex hadn’t played for a year because of her ACL, “she’s doing well,” Tara said, as Chiney hugged her freshman teammate.

As for Erica, “I love your aggressiveness. She’s fearless,” Tara said.

Later she said that “Amber changes things a lot.”

Completing the team introductions with Jasmine, whom she called “a vocal floor leader,” Tara said, “This is an exceptional freshman class.”

She then introduced her staff, including Trina, who “brings experience and is a super person. There are some big shoes to fill on this staff,” she said, referring to Bobbie Kelsey, who left at the end of last season to become head coach at the University of Wisconsin. Bobbie “is going to do great.”

Besides the other coaches, Eileen and Marcella, the staff includes Lauren Greif, who has been named special assistant and video coordinator after serving an internship last season. This year’s intern is Liz Rizza.

Susan didn’t attend the dinner, perhaps because “she really has her hands full with 3-month-old twins and an 18-month-old,” Tara said.

Tara excused the players and took questions from the fans.

She explained that the 3-point line has been moved out to the men’s line, and “I’m OK with it.” A new line around the basket marks a restricted area where no charges are allowed -- an effort to protect players going to the basket.

Although Amber and Mikaela didn’t scrimmage, they’re in the top group of players, Tara said, adding, “It might be different every night.” The team has many good offensive players, so defense and rebounding will determine who sees the most action.

A recent newspaper article said Tara might consider red-shirting one or two freshmen. At the dinner, Tara said that’s a possibility only if it were good for the player and the team. She doesn’t have to make any decision until after the two exhibition games. NCAA rules allow freshmen – but not upperclassmen -- to play exhibition games before being red-shirted.

“This is a very different team” from the past, Tara said. “It’s going to grow on you.”

The players all have a good attitude, and the upperclassmen are doing a good job of mentoring. The younger players are mature. “They have already exceeded my expectations for them.”

She’s hoping to extend the team’s defense. Its speed and depth will allow the team to be more aggressive.

Overall, “They’re all great young women,” she said.