“This is my senior year and I’m going to make the most of it. We know what we’re capable of and we want something better than what we had last year.”
That’s the mentality that women’s head basketball coach Tara VanDerveer sees from her three seniors — Chiney Ogwumike, Mikaela Ruef and Sara James — heading into the 2013-14 season. As Stanford moves further and further away from that last 1992 national championship, the question creeps up: How long will this window of opportunity remain open to stay on top of the pack and win another title for the program?
All-American, Pac-12 Player and Defensive Player of the Year Ogwumike insists that the window of opportunity to get to the Final Four is always open at Stanford, due to the constant influx of talent and the rubric for success that VanDerveer provides.
“Nowadays, making it to a Final Four is not our biggest goal,” Ogwumike said. “We want to win a national championship — so I think our team is thinking, ‘Forget Final Four, we want to win it all’ and that’s going to change our culture and get us to that national championship caliber.”
After making it to the Final Four for the previous five seasons and advancing to the finals in two of those five years, the Card was stopped short last season by Georgia in the Sweet 16 — a disappointing end for a team that had started the season with a victory over defending NCAA champion Baylor and had proceeded to hold on to the No. 1 spot for six weeks.
Last year’s team, as VanDerveer pointed out, was anticipated to be in a rebuilding year. The Card had lost four seniors from the previous season, including All-American Nneka Ogwumike ‘12, and had only one senior on the roster.
“Last year’s team, in my mind, really over-achieved to go 33-3… We had some tremendous highs, but then kind of reality set in,” VanDerveer said. “The game against Connecticut was very disappointing, and then the loss to Cal was very disappointing too, but I credit the team to have rallied to win the Pac-12 and win the Pac-12 Tournament.”
The main theme of last year’s team was the need for greater contributions from more players. All season, much of the weight of the team was placed on the shoulders of Ogwumike — particularly after All-Pac-12 guard Toni Kokenis ‘14 was kept out for much of the latter part of the schedule due to a concussion.
In her sophomore season, Ogwumike averaged a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, so the pressure and expectations were deserved. But VanDerveer continually emphasized the need for Stanford to move away from such dependency in order for it to be successful in the long run.
In came sophomore point guard Amber Orrange. It wasn’t until Pac-12 play began that Orrange, who ended the season averaging 10.8 points and four assists per game, really stepped up and became an integral part of Stanford’s. She also scored a career-high 20 points in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game and scored the game-winning basket with eight seconds remaining.
With Ogwumike in her senior year, Orrange’s confidence and new leadership role on the team, the experience of fifth-year senior Mikaela Ruef and the talent of five new freshmen, Stanford appears to be in good shape to be competitive for another year. VanDerveer, however, will still look for more players to step up and make a difference throughout the season. With Kokenis’ medical retirement and the loss of sophomore Aly Beebe to an ACL injury, Stanford will need to make use of its new depth.
Several other players, such as juniors Bonnie Samuelson and Erica Payne, and senior Sara James, have been “dinged up,” as VanDerveer put it, and have been limited in their practice time.
“It’s challenging in practice when we don’t have everyone available,” VanDerveer said. “We’re just trying to get everyone healthy. Everyone who’s practicing, though, is playing really well.”
For Ogwumike, a sense of urgency has surfaced in practice as the reality of senior year has sunk in. Her main goal at the end of last season was to prove that she was still working and hadn’t become complacent with her skills.
“[Going into this season] I just wanted to improve and show people that I am developing as a player,” Ogwumike said. “I want to be comfortable on the perimeter and develop my outside shot. I want to be able to be a passer and facilitate offense and not just be a one-dimensional type of player, so I just worked on a lot of things inside and out and getting better with my left hand: making better reads, finding the open person, making the right play.”
Last year’s theme — needing more players to step up — still resounds in the back of the players’ minds. Everyone is working to contribute in any way possible, creating a renewed atmosphere of determination and competitiveness at practices, according to VanDerveer and some of her older players.
“I know that I have to do a lot for our team this year,” Samuelson said. “I’m an upperclassman. Once I get out there again, I’m going to look towards being a leader and try to help on the offensive end. I want to look to be more aggressive.”
VanDerveer attributes this shift in attitude to the greater depth and experience of this year’s team. With five freshmen added to the mix of four returning starters (Ogwumike, Ruef, James, Orrange) and other upperclassmen, the Card is expected to answer VanDerveer’s request for more contributions.
“We have very talented freshmen and they’re all different and bring something unique to our team… I think Erica McCall is very athletic and talented, Kailee [Johnson] is a great inside-out player; she’s tall and moves well. Bri[ana Roberson] is lightning fast and has a motor that will never stop. Lili [Thompson] is really strong,” Ogwumike said. “And she has great basketball knack. Then Karlie [Samuelson] has got that Samuelson shot… These five freshman bring so many different things and our depth has really just gone off the charts.”
Because of this depth, coupled with the continued improvement of the returning players motivated by the bitter taste of last year’s Sweet 16 loss, the Card is in a good position to go far in the NCAA tournament and win the Pac-12 title for a 13th consecutive season.
To do so, the team will have to overcome lingering injuries, let the freshmen gain experience and rediscover its identity before it can experience great success. VanDerveer pointed out that Stanford wouldn’t be the consensus No. 1 right out of the gate, but will be competitive come February and March when it matters most.
The Card opens preseason play this Sunday against Vanguard. Its first test early on will be playing at UConn just two games later, for a chance at avenging last year’s home loss.
“I like everything I’ve seen so far,” VanDerveer said. “Everyone’s working hard; it’s more competitive. Last year, not going to the Final Four, not going to the Elite Eight, hopefully bothers some people.”
Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu.