April 21, 2014

Final farewell to this year’s team

Several hundred people gathered at the Arrillaga Alumni Center on April 17 to get one last look at the 2013-14 Stanford women’s basketball team, honor its stellar accomplishments and enjoy the annual spring banquet.

The evening began with a social hour with appetizers and beverages while fans chatted with each other and individual players, who were all dressed up.

Two of the players garnering the most attention were senior forward Chiney Ogwumike and redshirt senior forward Mikaela Ruef. Actually, they’re now alums, having finished their degrees at the end of the winter quarter.

Chiney, Mikaela drafted by WNBA teams

Chiney, who earned her bachelor’s degree in international relations, had the honor of being the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft on April 14. She’ll go to the Connecticut Sun, where she’ll join former teammate Kayla Pedersen, ’11. Mikaela, who completed her master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering, was taken No. 31. She’ll go to the Seattle Storm, joining classmate Joslyn Tinkle, ’13.

She leaves April 24. She said she has signed a training camp contract, which doesn’t guarantee her a roster spot. WNBA teams may have extra players in training camp but must cut their rosters to 12 by the time the season starts May 16.

Also garnering attention was senior guard Sara James, who leaves for New York City on May 21 to begin a two-year graduate nursing program at Columbia University. Other former players in the Big Apple are Ashley Cimino, ’11, who works for Glossybox USA, an e-commerce firm; and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, ’10, a reporter for the WNBA’s Liberty and the NBA’s Knicks.

DeeDee Zawaydeh, administrative assistant, served as the evening’s emcee and gave the welcome as fans sat down to enjoy a buffet dinner with seemingly something for everyone. She compared basketball to dancing and cited the latest dance craze, Nae Nae, with a quick demonstration by freshman forward Erica “Bird” McCall. Bird won a Nae Nae dance contest during player festivities at the recent Final Four in Nashville.

After dinner, DeeDee concluded by saying, “Stanford is a very special place,” and introducing head coach Tara VanDerveer, who took over from there.

The season for this year’s team and coaches began with spring conditioning at 6 a.m. the day after last year’s banquet, Tara said. Having missed the 2013 Final Four after five consecutive appearances, “we rededicated ourselves to returning,” she said.

The team will start working on next season April 21 after a break for Easter, she said later.

Tara praises freshmen

After thanking a number of behind-the-scenes people who are so important to the team, she introduced this year’s five freshmen. “What a great group,” she said. One of the pleasures of coaching, she said, is seeing “how much the young women on our team grow and mature through the year.” She added that this year’s freshmen came in college-ready.

She then introduced each one, starting with guard Briana Roberson, whose playing time was limited by injury, but who proved to be the “fastest and hardest” worker on the team. The coach is looking forward to Bri’s conditioning over the summer.

Guard Karlie Samuelson, who was wearing a boot after having her minutes limited toward the end of the season, made a total of 32 3’s, ranking third on the team. She also made more than 90 percent of her free throws and proved herself to be “an excellent passer and defender.”

Guard Lili Thompson, who became a mainstay of the starting lineup, was named to the Pac-12 all-freshman team, led the Cardinal in 3-point shooting percentage and ranked third in scoring. She also was a good defender who was always assigned to guard the opponent’s best perimeter player, Tara said.

Forward Kailee Johnson played the small forward spot but dealt with injuries such as a broken nose and a foot injury. “We have confidence in Kailee,” the coach said.

Bird is “such an enthusiastic and determined player.” During practice, “she guarded the best player (Chiney) every day and never backed down … We trust your wings, Bird,” she said, adding that she’s looking forward to her and Kailee helping the team next year.

Tara foresees good things for Tess, introduces juniors

More thanks followed before introduction of the team’s only true sophomore, forward/center Tess Picknell, who “learned every day from Chiney and Mikaela.” She’s an “excellent screener and passer. … Next year is Tess’s time,” Tara said.

After more thanks, it was time for the juniors to come to the front of the room.

Forward Erica Payne “brings great energy and great enthusiasm to our team,” Tara said. Limited because of offseason surgery, Erica nevertheless ran the “phenomenal scout team.”

While at the Final Four, Erica became the first Stanford women’s basketball player to receive the NCAA’s Elite 89 Award. This award goes “to the student athlete with the highest GPA participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA’s 89 championships” in all three divisions, the NCAA website says. Erica’s GPA is 3.515.
Guard Jasmine Camp, a redshirt sophomore, is “one of our vocal leaders and a major leader on the scout team,” Tara said.

“We have something really special on this team,” Tara said, referring to the entire team. The players support one another. Because they’re so intelligent, players on the scout team quickly learn the other team’s tendencies and plays.

Guard Alex Green, also a redshirt sophomore, scored the season’s first basket when the team won at Boston College on Nov. 9. “It’s great to have Alex back” after she missed nearly two years, Tara said. She’s a great defender.

Forward Bonnie Samuelson was the team’s fourth-leading scorer, thanks in large part to her 62 3-pointers. Impressively, she missed only one free throw all year for a 96 percent success rate. Her biggest improvement over the year was on defense, Tara said.

Guard Amber Orrange garnered a slew of honors, including All-Pac 12, honorable mention on the All-Pac 12 academic team and finalist for the Lieberman Award, given to the nation’s best point guard. She was third on the team in rebounding and first in assists. Tara predicted that next year she’ll be a first-round draft pick.

Forward Taylor Greenfield was hurt in the off-season but nevertheless had a big game in the Tennessee victory at home Dec. 21, playing 30 minutes and scoring 11 points, including three of five 3-s.

Tara thanks coaches

Tara then thanked and introduced the coaches, starting with assistant Tempie Brown, who came on board last summer. She’s “a great addition to our staff” who brought new ideas to Stanford. “We’re glad she’s here,” Tara said.

As for assistant Kate Paye, she’s “the eternal optimist,” believing the team would do well in the NCAA tournament despite the seeding (a No. 2), first- and second-round location (Ames, Iowa) and bracket (tough). Like Tempie, she’s involved in scouting and recruiting.

Associate head coach Amy Tucker, who coaches the posts, has “had incredible success,” Tara said, citing all of the Stanford post players who got into the WNBA.

Seniors say their goodbyes

Finally it was time for the seniors, whose framed jerseys served as a backdrop to the dais.

Tara started with guard Toni Kokenis, who took medical retirement because of injuries after her junior season and who was greeted with a standing ovation.

“We missed Toni’s contributions on the floor. Toni was a constant reminder that nothing is guaranteed,” Tara said, yet she remained loyal to the team and helped her teammates.

Taking the microphone, Toni said, “I never thought this day would come.” She thanked the fans for their support and added, “Stanford has given me so many opportunities.” She’ll remain on campus next year while she works on her master’s degree.

Sara is “one of our most passionate basketball players,” Tara said. She had surgery last summer that didn’t quite work, causing her to play in pain, but she’s “a tough competitor.”

Thanking the fans for their support, Sara said, “I always dreamed of playing basketball at Stanford.” She joked that when she goes to Columbia, she’ll go to the rec center and pretend she doesn’t know anything about basketball.

Introducing Mikaela, Tara told her, “I’m not sure anyone as improved as much as you.”
It started when the team went to Italy last summer and continued through the year. She wound up being fourth on the team in scoring and second in both rebounds and assists.

Mikaela said she had many people to thank for “never giving up on me.” She added, “These past five years have been the best five years of my life.” She also thanked all the teammates she has had at Stanford. “We make each other strong.” Finally, she thanked the fans, saying “You guys are the greatest.”

Although Chiney was first on the team in scoring and rebounding, setting records in both, she also was first in turnovers, Tara said. “I’ve never been so sad to see our leading turnover player graduate.”

She then went on to cite Chiney’s numerous honors and accomplishments, culminating as No. 1 pick in the WNBA and winner of the Wooden Award for best female basketball player, the first Stanford and Pac-12 player to be accorded this highest honor. Chiney “is a once in a lifetime player,” she said.

Chiney said she has had “an amazing four years here at Stanford.” She thanked Athletic Director Bernard Muir as well as her family and coaches, including Tara, who’s “so passionate about the game.”

She thanked her teammates for a “most spectacular year of basketball. We had that feeling of invincibility,” she said, adding that she hopes the returning players keep that torch burning. And even though she’s going to the state that’s home to rival UConn, “I know where my heart lies. My heart lies here,” she concluded.

Video summarizes season

Next came an annual high point of spring banquets – a video summarizing the season.

Prepared by Bud Anderson, video coordinator, it started with the Sweet 16 loss to Georgia at the end of the 2012-13 season, followed by some slogans: “Every disappointment is a blessing,” “Every off-season is an opportunity” and “Every journey has a purpose.” The latter included scenes from the team’s summer trip to Italy.

Then each player was featured, following by highlights from 2013 games, including the victory over Tennessee and Tara’s 900th career victory when the team was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for a tournament during the Thanksgiving break.

For the Pac12 season, it listed all of the team’s honors and a “Just Dance” segment, showing the players dancing in the hall before running onto the court before games.

Clips from the “Nerd Anthem” were followed by Senior Night at the last home game and the Pac 12 tournament, which ended with a semi-final loss to USC and Tara’s locker room talk to the team.

While in Iowa for the first two NCAA games, the team was shown watching on the bus and in the locker room as the Stanford men’s team vaulted into the NCAA Sweet 16.

The video went on to show highlights of the regional at Stanford, the Final Four, Chiney’s records, Chiney and Mikaela as draft picks and season statistics, including the seventh straight season with 30 wins or more – 33-4 this season.

Tara wrapped up the evening by saying it was “just a fabulous year.” She cited the team’s improvement, its leadership, its fun and its closeness, all adding up to “a really, really special year.”

Upcoming off-season is important

Strength coach Brittany Keil will work with the returning players and three incoming freshmen during the off-season, “when players make the decision to be great players,” Tara concluded.

After the formal program, the players posed for photos, signed autographs and continued to receive fans’ congratulations for a job well done.

Now fans must wait more than six long months for the next season to start. Thank goodness for the WNBA with all its Stanford grads.

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