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W. Basketball: Hopes high as Card begins hunt for title

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After 10 straight regular season Pac-10 titles and three consecutive Final Four appearances, the expectations for this year’s Cardinal women couldn’t be much higher. Stanford enters the season ranked at No. 2 and No. 3 in the AP and coaches’ polls, respectively, and was unanimously voted by Pac-10 coaches as the conference’s top team.

If its first two preseason games are any indication, the team is on track to impress once again. Stanford routed Vanguard, 116-65, and UC-San Diego, 100-52, in exhibition play earlier this week, seeing huge contributions from new and old players alike. The Cardinal will kick off its regular season at home this Sunday when it takes on Rutgers at 2 p.m.

The Cardinal boasts 11 returners from last year’s national runner-up team, which lost to Connecticut, 53-47, in the finals. Among the team’s veterans are three of last year’s go-to starters, all of whom head coach Tara VanDerveer put in the opening lineup in that loss against the Huskies. Together with the other returning players and the team’s incoming freshmen, they’ll have to fill the void left by the departure of former starters Jayne Appel and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. Appel scored 13.2 points per game last season and is Stanford’s all-time leader in rebounds, while Gold-Onwude was a leader at the point guard position and boasted 33 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

“Obviously we had great success last year, and we do miss all the players that aren’t playing this year,” VanDerveer said. “They left some big shoes to fill, but thankfully we’ve got some big feet.”

Returner and All-American Nnemkadi Ogwumike led the team in points per game last season with 18.5 and was named the Pac-10 player of the year for her efforts. The junior forward has been limited to just 13 minutes of play over the team’s two exhibition matches due to a sore left ankle, but managed to go 4-for-4 from the field and pull down three rebounds.

In her second year with the team, Nnemkadi Ogwumike, in red above, soared high above the competition. The junior forward averaged 18.5 points per game last season, a team-high. (DYLAN PLOFKER/The Stanford Daily)

Joining Ogwumike as returning starters are seniors Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen, both of whom were named to the All-Pac-10 first team last season. At 6-foot-4, Pedersen is a powerful presence in the forward position, and has already put up big numbers this season. She scored a game-high 25 points against Vanguard on 9-for-13 shooting, including 2-for-2 on three-pointers, before putting up 13 points in just 20 minutes against UC-San Diego three days later.

Pohlen, stepping in as the team’s most experienced guard, has had a pair of solid outings as well. She scored a total of 25 points over 42 minutes in both games, bolstered by her 5-for-6 shooting for threes. Adding to her contributions in the first two contests, Pohlen posted four assists in each game.

“I’m really excited with how our team started off with the exhibition games, and how our team is coming together,” Pohlen said. “We have a lot of different lineups right now, and I could be playing the two-guard this year a little bit too, which is nice. We just have a lot of people who are very versatile. As far as a leadership role, I’m very excited to step up and show some leadership my senior year.”

Eight other members of last year’s squad will join the Cardinal’s three returning starters. Among them is redshirt sophomore Sarah Boothe, who missed all of last season with a foot ailment, but started in both of the team’s exhibition games and scored a total of 24 points in 43 minutes. Another player to watch is sophomore forward Joslyn Tinkle, who started against Vanguard and scored a total of 24 points in 47 minutes across both games, along with a total of 14 rebounds.

Rounding out the roster for this year’s Cardinal is a trio of talented freshmen. Toni Kokenis, a guard out of Oak Brook, Ill., has already impressed this year with her speed and athleticism. Against UC-San Diego, she kick-started the Cardinal offense with a steal and a layup before going on to post three assists and four points. Guard Sara James, a California native, posted 16 points in the win against Vanguard, including a 4-for-7 effort from beyond the arc.

Perhaps this year’s biggest addition to the Cardinal roster, however, comes in the form of Chiney Ogwumike. The younger sibling of Nnemkadi, Chiney has done nothing but impress this year, posting a pair of 24-point efforts in both exhibition contests in a total of 48 minutes. The guard, a product of Cypress, Tex., like her older sister, also recorded game highs in rebounds during both games, with 16 against Vanguard and eight against UC-San Diego.

With its talented additions and experienced veterans, including a healthy Boothe, the Cardinal’s biggest strength this season may be its versatility.

“It’s really just a puzzle in figuring out what pieces go together,” VanDerveer said about the depth of her roster. “It’ll just take some time through practice and seeing how people do in games, and we’ll have some big tests really quickly. We have a lot of different options, and we’ll see how different peoples’ roles are solidified. Right now we don’t have a completely set starting lineup.”

The Cardinal’s first regular season matchup will come this Sunday, when it takes on Rutgers at 2 p.m. The Scarlet Knights hosted Stanford in their home opener last season, falling 81-66. The team’s offense is spearheaded by redshirt junior Khadijah Rushdan, a preseason All-Big East honorable mention who led her team in assists last season with 116 and steals with 56. Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer is third on the NCAA’s list for most career wins and last year was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Together with VanDerveer, who is fifth on the list, the pair has a combined 1,636 victories.

“We go way back,” VanDerveer said of Stringer. “She’s a fabulous coach and an even better person. When we’re not playing them, I’m rooting for her.

The rest of Stanford’s nonconference season should prove to be a tough test, with games scheduled against No. 17 Texas and No. 5 Xavier, before finishing off the calendar year at home against No. 1 Connecticut on Dec. 30.

“We have the anti-cupcake schedule,” VanDerveer said. We are playing everybody and anybody. Obviously Connecticut and Xavier [are tough]. Rutgers is a great team to start with, and they’re an excellent program.”

Despite the relentless schedule, VanDerveer is hopeful that her team will play strong and win over new and old fans alike this season.

“This is a really exciting time right now for sports, with the Giants doing so well, our football team doing so well, and obviously women’s volleyball, all the different sports,” she said. “We just want to be part of that. We want people to come and see our team and say, ‘Wow, they’re a special team.’”

Stanford will kick off its regular season against Rutgers this Sunday. The game is scheduled for 2 p.m. at Maples Pavilion.

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