When head coach Tara VanDerveer was in Denver for a speaking engagement last spring, she stayed at the Brown Palace Hotel and happened to pass the Pepsi Center. She thought about how great it would be if her Stanford women’s basketball team played there for the 2012 Final Four. Then she told herself, “Get real.”
After all, her team had just lost five players, including Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen, to graduation, and six freshmen were coming in – not a promising scenario.
Nevertheless, the team that assembled on campus last fall surpassed her initial expectations and wound up playing in Stanford’s fifth consecutive Final Four at the Pepsi Center in Denver just a few weeks ago. Not only that, but the team stayed in the Brown Palace Hotel. Now she’s hoping for a history-making sixth consecutive Final Four next season.
Tara related her Denver experience by way of introduction to the team’s annual spring banquet April 18 at the Stanford Faculty Club. She then proceeded to thank everyone who had any part in the team’s success, starting with university president John Hennessy and other administrators and continuing with a host of staffers, scholarship sponsors and, of course, the players.
Like the season, which included records such as a 32-game winning streak that was the longest in team history and an ongoing, nation’s best 79-game home winning streak, the banquet itself was a record with some 320 attendees. Some people had to be turned away because the banquet room was filled to capacity. In fact, one table was set up on the patio for several staff members.
DeeDee Zawaydeh, administrative assistant, served as emcee. A large screen was set up at the front of the room, and smaller screens in two corners gave everyone a good view of the proceedings, which were captured by a cameraman in the middle of the room.
Saluting the sophomores
In introducing each player, Tara departed from tradition by starting with the sophomores.
She called guard Sara James a “high energy, unselfish” player. She noted that the human biology major is often the first one at practice.
Fellow guard Toni Kokenis, a starter, was the team’s third-leading scorer and leader in assists. Along with being a good defender, she led the Pac-12 in assist-to-turnover ratio and in steals. Her mother, Marie, was there with her twin brother, Peter.
Forward Chiney Ogwumike is “another tough defender,” Tara said, and “maybe the best offensive rebounder ever to wear a Stanford jersey.” Named to the All-American team along with other honors, she’s “a competitor and a warrior,” the coach said.
Juniors expected to make big contributions
After more thanks to various staffers, the next in line for introductions were the two juniors, starting with forward Mikaela Ruef, who missed most of the year with foot problems. “Get ready for next year,” Tara told her. Tara called her the captain of the rehab team (two freshmen also missed most of the season with injuries) and said, “She will really help” when she returns to action. The coach added that the management, science and engineering major earned all A’s last quarter.
Fellow forward Joslyn Tinkle “had a breakout season,” Tara said. She led the team with 47 blocks and had the highest 3-point and free throw percentage. The sociology and communication major also is “a vocal leader.”
The next round of thanks included strength and conditioning coach Susan Borchardt, a former Stanford player who joined the staff last fall. “The Susan system works,” Tara said, referring to the role Susan has played in the team’s success.
Team’s six pack of freshmen
Then Tara introduced the freshmen, starting with guard Jasmine Camp, “a high-energy player” who missed most of the season with a stress fracture in her foot. Joining Jasmine on the sidelines was guard Alex Green, a good defender who tore her Achilles tendon in November.
Forward Taylor Greenfield is a good 3-point shooter with “great basketball instincts,” Tara said. She was an honorable mention member of the Pac-12 all-freshman team.
Guard Amber Orrange earned the same honor while stepping into the starting point guard spot during the season. “Amber really picked up her defense” and has “amazing acceleration and court sense,” Tara said.
Forward Erica Payne “practices like a senior,” the coach said. Her on-court craftiness earned her a nickname of “the worm,” and she’s developing a perimeter game.
With her quick release, forward Bonnie Samuelson “led the team in 3-pointers made” with 44, Tara said.
“The six-pack is a special freshman class. Now is your time to step up,” Tara said, noting that many players improve the most between their freshman and sophomore seasons.
Coaches merit praise
Tara invited her coaching colleagues to join her in front and praised each one, starting with assistant Trina Patterson, whom she welcomed to her first banquet and whom she lauded for “outstanding teaching skills.” Trina also added four new fans to the booster base thanks to her husband and three sons, who attend most games.
Assistant Kate Paye, another former Stanford player, has been with the team for five years, hence helping to lead it to its five straight Final Fours. Kate has good people skills, Tara said.
Associate head coach Amy Tucker “is really funny,” Tara said, but she also “gets things done.” A good evaluator and developer of talent, she will soon be inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I work at a great university,” Tara said, noting that nothing has changed since her own induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last fall. She appreciates the support that coaches of other Stanford sports give her and the team.
‘Invested seniors’ lead team
“Our team is led by invested seniors,” she said, calling the foursome “a great class.” Lined up behind her were the four seniors’ framed white jerseys.
Forward Sarah Boothe, No. 42, had foot injuries, but she “worked hard to get healthy.” The coach also called the psychology major “a good passer.” Sarah responded by thanking everyone for their support. “We have the best fans,” she said. Joining her at the banquet was one of her brothers, David, who plays football for Hope College in Michigan.
Guard Lindy La Rocque, No. 15, “will always be remembered for her hustle plays.” She also sets great screens and dishes out assists. A science, technology and society major, she was a big help to her fellow guards and “is going to be a great coach,” Tara said.
Lindy thanked her parents for their support, noting that they attended nearly every game during her four years. She got teary-eyed when she talked about her teammates and coaches.
“I’m proud of the culture our team has in caring for each other,” Tara said, introducing guard Grace Mashore, No. 1. “Her maturity and support of other players” have added to the team’s success. Fans will remember fondly the American studies major’s last-minute 3-pointer as the team wrapped up its final home victory of the season. Grace responded, “I’ve been on four really special teams.”
Finally Tara came to forward Nneka Ogwumike, No. 30, who just two days earlier had been the first pick in the WNBA draft, chosen by the Los Angeles Sparks. “This is a Stanford first,” Tara said.
Tara recited a long list of Nneka’s other honors, including the Lowe’s Senior Class Award. Her 2,491 career points at Stanford are second only to Candice Wiggins, ’08. She handled adversity well, developed her game, became more aggressive on the court and served as a great team captain. “I’ve loved being your coach,” Tara told her.
Nneka answered with a thank you and “Nerd City kid. Nerd, Nerd City kid,” the opening lines of the popular rap video that she, her teammates and other Stanford athletes made this year.
She thanked the coaches for their patience and said that when she was a freshman, she never imagined that she’d be in the WNBA. She thanked Susan for her conditioning help and her professors for being patient with the demands of the team’s travel.
Bonnie wins Lizard Lung Award
In keeping with tradition, Chiney and Sarah, past winners of the Lizard Lung Award, presented this year’s award. According to team lore, a player who was being treated for a blister asked what the trainer was using. The trainer said it came from the lungs of a lizard, and the player believed her. Hence the award usually goes to the player deemed most gullible by her teammates.
Since the award often goes to a freshman, the returning players tried not to tell the freshmen about it. Moreover, the criterion was different this year. “In one word, it’s awkward,” Chiney said, announcing Harry Potter fan Bonnie as this year’s honoree. The clincher came when the team was doing its traditional circle of dancing in the tunnel before the Hampton game in Norfolk, Va., and Bonnie did a ballet move on one leg.
“I didn’t know this award existed,” Bonnie said, adding that she was glad she could make the team laugh. Tara reassured her that Jennifer Azzi, ’90, was a winner, too. Jennifer is head coach of the USF women’s basketball team.
Video captures season highlights
Next the audience was treated to video created by Bud Anderson, director of video operations, and Lauren Greif, the team’s video coordinator. It started with the team’s initial workouts last fall and featured each player in game action. It was packed with season highlights, especially the home win over Tennessee and some unbelievable plays by Nneka, and then went on to the tournaments.
It ended with the Final Four semi-final game against eventual champion Baylor and showed the Cardinal getting past the likes of 6’8” Brittney Griner.
Tara ended the evening with another story. This time she said she had seen a Stanford maintenance truck that carried the slogan, “caretakers of our legacy.” Noting that the returning players were to begin workouts the next morning (5:30 a.m. according to some tweets), she challenged them with “Who will be the caretakers of our legacy?”
Next year’s pre-Pac-12 schedule will again be challenging with a number of NCAA tournament teams, including Baylor, she said. Touting the Cardinal’s accomplishments in the NCAA tournament, “Our team really stepped up really big,” she said.
With the return of 11 players, including four starters and the three injured players, plus the addition of two promising recruits, “We are going to have a great team next year,” she concluded.
When Tara talked about maintaining the legacy, she was referring to the responsibility of returning players, especially the seniors, to help freshmen adjust to the Stanford way of playing and conducting oneself on and off the court.
Teammates write tributes to seniors
Program notes that the freshmen, sophomores and juniors wrote to each senior attest to how the four fulfilled that responsibility.
“I don’t think I have ever met anyone with a bigger heart than you,” Sara wrote to Sarah. Erica called her Momma Boothe “because you’re always looking out for the rest of the team.” Joslyn said Sarah is “probably one of the most caring and sincere individuals I have ever met.” Others also spoke about how supportive Sarah has been. “I’ll miss your amazingly wonderful ginormous hugs whenever I’m having a down day,” Toni said.
Time and again, Lindy’s teammates cited her basketball smarts. “Whenever I have a question about basketball, I can always count on you to know the answer,” Taylor said. She and others, like Alex, thanked Lindy for “your willingness to help me with anything.” Mikaela said, “I’m going to miss having you as the coach on the floor next year.”
Teammates praised Grace for her good humor and hard work. “Grace has kept me laughing all year long,” Jasmine said. “Grace is always positive and upbeat and gets our team going every day in practice. She is one of the hardest working … and toughest players on the team,” Amber said. “Grace is a people’s champ,” Chiney said. “I’ll miss you,” Bonnie said. “I know you’ll go on to do great things.”
Nneka, like her classmates, will be greatly missed, her teammates said. “Nneka is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. She has a good heart and was always willing to go out of her way to take care of the freshmen,” Amber said. Joslyn wrote, “My favorite thing about you, Nnek, is not that you’re the best player in the country but that you remain as humble and kind as you are.”