The Stanford women’s basketball team has a tough act to follow. Last year, the Cardinal went 35-2 overall and 18-0 in the Pac-12, but heads into this season with Nnemka Ogwumike, an All-American last season and the WNBA rookie of the year this year after being selected in the WNBA Draft. The level of competition that coach Tara VanDerveer’s team encounters this season will not provide the Card with any time to breathe, either. They will face both Baylor and Tennessee on the road, and take on the University of Connecticut at home, games that are always accompanied by plenty of hype.
As VanDerveer said, a tough schedule is just part of Stanford’s identity as a top program. “When you play a great schedule like we do, it gives you a sense of urgency every day in practice,” she said. “Baylor is undefeated and won the national championship, we lost to them last year. Connecticut we lost to last year. Tennessee we beat, but we’re playing there and we haven’t beat them there in a long time. So we know that it’s a really big challenge for us so it brings that sense of urgency every day to practice.”
Although Stanford graduated four players last year (Nneka Ogwumike, Lindy La Rocque, Sarah Boothe, and Grace Mashore), the Cardinal does have a core of veteran, if younger players. VanDerveer expects that leadership will stem from junior Wade Trophy candidate and All-American Chiney Ogumike, who averaged 15.0 points per game, 10.1 rebounds per game, and shot 58.3 percent from the field last season.
“Chiney is an excellent leader, a fabulous rebounder, she has improved her perimeter shooting, she knows what we’re doing, she concentrates and works hard everyday,” VanDerveer said. “She is going to be the center of our team, no doubt. She’s going to have to come out and play hard and play well every night for us to be successful, but she does. She’s a warrior and I love coaching Chiney and I think she’ll have a great year.”
Also joining Chiney in the returning starting lineup is senior Joslyn Tinkle (8.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 39.7 3-pt FG pct). As the only true senior on the team, she brings a lot of experience to a team that only boasts five upperclassmen. VanDerveer expects her to help fill the leadership role.
It’s a position Tinkle is prepared to step into straightaway.
“Coming in, obviously, we’ve talked about how a lot of the success of our team came from seniors last year,” Tinkle said. “Obviously we all bring different things to the table so this year what I’m really focusing on is attacking that position of being the team leader, knowing that I’m the only senior and being motivated that this is the last year that I will ever be able to play with these girls and wear that Stanford jersey out there.
“I have a lot of experience and I’ve been fortunate enough to be on three successful teams that have advanced to the Final Four so I know what it takes to get there,” she said.
With the young team, Tinkle admits that there is a different feeling to the team this year: “We’ve changed our offense and our kind of strategy, how to score, how to defend, and I would say we are one of the quicker teams that I have ever played on here at Stanford and so it’s been really fun to see everyone’s versatility come into play and match that with our new game plan,” she said.
VanDerveer also pointed out that returners Amber Orrange and Toni Kokenis should be key contributors on the team. Kokenis was an All-Pac-12 guard as a sophomore last year and Orrange was named honorable mention to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team. VanDerveer said that Orrange has improved even more since last year and that Kokenis continues to work hard in practice.
The major change in dynamic that will come into play will be for Ogwumike, as she starts the season without the presence of her sister. She relishes the chance to fill the void and take over the game.
“I don’t think I’m going to do anything different. We just go; we play games. I’m not worried about creating any legacy; I’m just worried about getting our team to win,” Ogwumike said. “So it’s about just working hard every day in practice. I don’t worry about things that come in a day or a week or a month. It’s more about what’s gong on in the now. It was a great two years [with my sister] but I’m excited to be myself and figure out who I’m going to be for the next two years. So it’s sort of bitter sweet but I’m excited for this year.”
This year will definitely hold some excitement for the Card as they enter the 2012-13 campaign with two program record-breaking streaks. They claim the nation’s longest home winning streak, having won 79 games in a row at Maples Pavilion since the start of the 2007-08 season, and they’ve won a conference record 78 straight games against Pac-12 schools.
In addition, the Card aims to cut down the nets in March for the program’s third national title since 1992, and make their 12th Final Four appearance. VanDerveer hopes that the energetic and experienced duo of Ogwumike and Tinkle will help guide the team in the right direction and help them realize their goals.
For Ogwumike, her list of goals is focused and ambitious. “I’m just focusing on trying to make sure we have a great foundation for winning another Pac-12 championship, another Pac-12 tournament championship, and advancing to another Final Four,” she said “Those are the only three things that are on my mind.”
Considering the mixture of young talent and veteran experience on this Stanford squad, these goals have a great chance to be realized if the team can fill the voids created by losing the elder Ogwumike from what was a truly dominant frontcourt.
Stanford will take the floor to open the season with two exhibition games next week and the official preseason opener at home against Fresno State on Nov. 9.