March 3, 2014

A time for a trophy, tributes, tears and a victory, too

With more than 5,600 fans in Maples Pavilion, the night of March 1 was emotion-packed as the Stanford women’s basketball team defeated Washington State 84-64 and honored its four seniors.

Even before the game started, the significance was evident as one fan, Lily Wong, gave large mounted photos of the foursome to members of the Amy Tucker Fan Club. As the band entered, several members sported tie dye or wore T-shirts honoring Toni Kokenis, the medically retired senior guard who plays flugelhorn with the band when she’s not involved with her team.

Her family and those of the other three honorees – forward Chiney Ogwumike, guard Sara James and redshirt senior Mikaela Ruef – were packed into the family section. Sara’s mom, Kelly, said some 30 or 40 other relatives and friends were at the game to honor her.

Three Trees perform

All 15 Cardinal players were warming up, while WSU had 11. Shortly before the game started, a virtual grove of three Trees danced on the court. It was later announced that one of them was the retiring 2013-14 Tree, Calvin Studebaker, while another was his successor, Will Funk. The third Tree, actually more of a tallish stump, wasn’t named.

In the meantime, a bloc of girls from BAWSI – Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative – sat in an upper corner chanting “Stanford, Stanford,” and waving the red foam trees emblazoned with the Stanford ‘S’ that had been given to fans.

BAWSI’s purpose is “to harness the power of female athletes to impact society and give them an opportunity to connect through authentic, intentional service,” its website says. It tries to do this “by providing opportunities to serve young girls who weren’t being exposed to organized sports, or physical education classes, and to reach girls in communities where obesity and diabetes were prevalent.”

After a video of highlights from the Feb. 27 home victory over Washington, head coach Tara VanDerveer presented flowers to the WSU seniors.

Then it was time to introduce the starting lineup, a ritual involving an upbeat video, “Feel the Moment,” with highlights from this season. This was its last showing, for even if the Cardinal return home for an NCAA regional, as expected, it won’t be a Stanford event. Instead the NCAA will run the show.

Stanford’s starting lineup featured Chiney, Mikaela, junior forward Bonnie Samuelson, freshman guard Lili Thompson and junior point guard Amber Orrange. They put Stanford up 5-0 less than two minutes into the game and, together with their teammates, stayed ahead throughout the game. WSU kept trying to come back to no avail.

Chiney scores career-high 37 points

Chiney and company made sure of that as Chiney scored a career-high 37 points to go with 13 rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal in 36 minutes. Even though Chiney had four fouls as the clock ticked down, Tara kept her in long enough to reach her record. With slightly more than two minutes left, Chiney went to the bench, the crowd gave her a standing ovation, and the band chanted, “We love you.”

A few seconds later, with Stanford’s lead at 82-62, all starters were on the bench, leaving their teammates to retain the 20-point lead.

Amber finished the game with 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 33 minutes. Bonnie also was in double figures with 10 points plus four rebounds and one assist in 26 minutes.

Her point total included two of the team’s four 3-pointers. The other two came from freshman guards Briana Roberson and Karlie Samuelson. However, the team had attempted 23 shots from beyond the arc, thus making only 17.4 percent.

The team did better with total field goals, making 31 of 69 for 44.9 percent. Its biggest success came at the free throw line with 18 of 20 for 90 percent. Rebounding also was good with 51, compared with WSU’s 34.

On the other hand, the Cardinal had 18 turnovers to WSU’s 13, and five steals to WSU’s nine.
Stanford’s athletic trainers were honored with a video and trip to center court during a first half timeout while WBB’s trainer, Marcella Shorty, waved to the crowd from her usual spot with the team’s huddle. She has been with the team for 12 years.

WJM Band, a trio of fifth graders, played rock music for the halftime entertainment. The band had earlier played the national anthem at a game. According to its website, the boys (no last names or other details given) donate their earnings to local charities like Second Harvest Food Bank.

At the end of the game, after the team had tossed the traditional victory balls to the crowd, the players joined the cheerleaders, Dollies, Trees and band for “Hail, Stanford, Hail.”

Pac-12 honors championship team

Then the festivities began. The players received Pac-12 championship T-shirts, and Chris Dawson, Pac-12 associate commissioner, presented the championship trophy to Chiney.

Everyone posed in front of a Pac-12 banner proclaiming the 2014 women’s basketball champions.

After a video honoring the seniors, each one was escorted to center court with her family to receive flowers from Tara while announcer Betty Ann Boeving enumerated the player’s accomplishment.

Toni, wearing her No. 31 home jersey, was first, joined by her mother and other relatives.

Next came Sara with her parents, brother and his fiancée.

Mikaela was escorted by her parents and grandparents.

Chiney was last. With her were her parents, older sister Nneka, ’12, younger sisters Olivia and Erica, and others.

Seniors tell post-graduation plans

The Behind the Bench also was devoted to the seniors, who sat in a semi-circle with their parents. The team sat behind them.

While waiting for Tara and Chiney to return from media interviews, associate head coach Amy Tucker said each senior could answer one question.

Toni, who will earn her degree in sociology this spring, said she’s staying at Stanford to pursue a master’s degree in the same subject. She’s also starting a nonprofit, We A.R.E. Project, intended to give all student athletes a voice in seeking equality in athletics. It is an offshoot of We A.R.E. (Athletes Reaching Equality) Pride that Toni and Cal WBB player Mikayla Lyles started earlier this season to generate awareness for LGBT inclusion in sports.

Even though Toni couldn’t play this season, Amy said, she remained with the team and scored a double-double – “energy and enthusiasm” – every day.

Sara, who will be going to Columbia University in New York City immediately after graduation to study to become a nurse practitioner, said she’s pursuing that goal rather than becoming a doctor because she wants to have more time with patients and have a family.

Mikaela, after earning her bachelor’s degree in management science and engineering last spring, will graduate with a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering this spring. She said she’s not sure what she wants to do next, but “whatever I do, I plan to be good at it.” As for playing basketball at Stanford, “I love being a part of this team,” she said.

Amy allowed another question for Toni, who was asked how much she missed playing this year. “‘A lot,’ would be a simple answer,” she said. “I miss being on the court with my teammates.”

“She came to practice every single day” and supported her teammates, Amy said. Toni added that she hopes to coach youth teams someday.

When Tara joined the group, she started by saying, “This was a really big game.” Seattle will be tough, she said, referring to the Pac-12 tournament March 6-9.

During the four years that the class of 2014 played, the team lost only two games at home, Tara said.

Tara, players praise seniors

Speaking of Mikaela, Tara said, “We’re glad that she’s back this year.” She’s one of the top rebounders in the conference.

Representing the team, freshman forward Kailee Johnson said, “Mikaela is a great leader on this team” and Kailee’s mentor.

Mikaela’s mother, Katie, thanked the fans for being her family away from home.

Junior forward Erica Payne used Sara’s nickname, Sej, when she said, “Sej is a ball of energy… and one of my best friends on this team.”

Sara’s father, Mike, said, “Sara is so lucky that she was able to attend Stanford” and receive so much support. “I have never been prouder. Through all the highs and lows, she’s always the same person. She always puts the team ahead of herself.”

Tara noted that “Sara’s always the first one in the gym.”

As for Toni, “She’s been a great part of this team,” Tara said.

Redshirt sophomore guard Alex Green call Toni “such a special friend,” so fun, energetic and creative. “I’m truly inspired by Toni. She encourages others to be comfortable with themselves.”

Toni’s mother, Marie, hobbled by a broken ankle sustained when bowling, said Tara’s mother, Rita, is a great recruiter. When Toni was visiting the campus during her junior year of high school, the two women chatted, and she always talks with Rita when she sees her.

She joked that “some of Toni’s best games were against my alma mater,” UCLA.

Toni introduced her aunt, who has attended all of her games, her sister and other relatives and friends. She thanked the fans and band for their support.

Chiney will graduate with a degree in international relations this month so that she can go on to the WNBA, following in Nneka’s footsteps. She’s widely expected to be a high draft pick. She wants to “take basketball as far as I can go” and to do community work.

An emotional Jasmine Camp, redshirt sophomore guard, said Chiney “has been one of my best friends,” like a sister. “She brings life to everything she does. We can’t replace you.”

Chiney introduced her family and said, “It’s been a special four years.” She’s not crying “because I’m so overwhelmed with happiness.”

Her mother, Ify, thanked fans, saying, “The support has been overwhelming” for the entire team. “It was a difficult decision (for Nneka and Chiney) to choose Stanford and leave Texas,” but it was the best decision she and their father, Peter, ever made. She thanked the coaches for all they did for her daughters.

“It’s been a great journey,” Peter said. Addressing the team, he said, “If Tara asks you to do something, do it because she’s never failed yet.”

“Our team did a great job tonight,” Tara said, but “this was just a warmup.” The team will have the next two days off and practice two days before flying to Seattle on March 6 for a hoped-for three games through March 9.

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