Let’s address what’s on everyone’s mind: This is the first season in six years that the Stanford’s women’s basketball team has not had an Ogwumike sister on the roster.
Yet instead of letting this fact define the upcoming season, the team has instead looked to the very-promising future: to its new offensive scheme, to seeing Amber Orrange and Lili Thompson step up as offensive powerhouses and perhaps most importantly, to see how the freshmen — Kaylee Johnson, Taylor Rooks and Brittany McPhee — will shape the next few years of Cardinal basketball.
This freshman class, ranked No. 10 in the nation by ESPN, screams accomplishment. Not only have these women achieved so much on the court as expected of such high-level recruits, but during high school all three players had GPAs of 4.0 or higher.
“They love the ultimate challenge of top academics and top basketball,” head coach Tara VanDerveer said. “And that’s what it takes.You got to have someone who really is as excited about the academics as the basketball because otherwise they’re not going to do well and they’re not going to be happy.”
VanDerveer believes, and demands, that this freshman class will make an impact on the Cardinal’s season.
“They’re all doing really well right now,” VanDerveer said. “They’re all working very hard but we’re hoping they can make the type of contributions that someone like Lili did last year — be really in the mix where they’re playing a lot and contributing a lot.”
Six-foot-3 forward Kaylee Johnson — not to be confused with sophomore forward Kailee Johnson — will undoubtedly be a huge contributor for the Cardinal. Johnson hails from Casper, Wyoming, where she was a three-time Wyoming Gatorade Player of the Year. ESPN HoopGurlz ranks Johnson as the No. 30 overall player in the class of 2014 and the seventh-ranked forward.
Johnson started Saturday’s exhibition match against Vanguard and earned a double-double, with 12 points and 16 rebounds in 24 minutes of action. Her impressive performance, which is even more valuable when taking into account the losses of Ogwumike and forward Mikaela Ruef, showed Cardinal fans that they will be seeing her quite often this season.
“She’s going to play and she’s going to play a lot,” VanDerveer said. “She catches on really quickly and she plays really hard. She is really high energy, vocal, into it, [and] excited.”
But for now, Johnson is not focusing on how many points and rebounds she gets per game or filling the spot of the Ogwumikes. Rather, she aims to fulfill any role needed of her that’s best for the team.
“I want to be that person that can come in and get done what they [the coaches] need me to get done,” Johnson said. “I will be willing to do really whatever but I want to have the coaches know that I can be successful in what they need me to do and do it efficiently.”
In addition to this post play, the Cardinal have added to their guard arsenal with the addition of Taylor Rooks and Brittany McPhee.
Originally from Warren, New Jersey, the 6-foot Rooks comes to the Farm with many accolades: 2014 Parade All-American, two-time New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year and No. 18 overall ranking in the class of 2014 and sixth-ranked guard by ESPN HoopGurlz. She notched two points in six minutes of action in the exhibition and is a versatile guard who will be looked upon to shoot, drive and play solid defense.
“Taylor Rooks is a physical player,” VanDerveer said. “She finishes very well around the basket. She is strong and she’s a very smart player [and] has a very nice outside shot.”
Such qualities will prove to be particularly crucial this year after VanDerveer’s abandonment of the triangle offense in favor of a more guard-centric one that emphasizes attacking the rim, pushing the pace of the game and cutting and screening.
VanDerveer also noted that as Rooks conditions more to the pace of college games, she will be able to contribute to the team even more. Instead of being discouraged by the tough adjustment to college ball, Rooks appreciates and recognizes that she has already improved immensely.
“The coaches and my teammates are super encouraging and they push all of us to do the best we can,” Rooks said. “I can see now that I’m already a much better player. They’re just pushing me and making me do things I didn’t think I was able to do.”
Johnson’s post-prowess and Rooks’ versatility will be nicely complemented by McPhee’s speed and shot.
The 6-foot guard from Normandy Park, Washington is a three-time Gatorade Player of the Year and 2014 Parade All-American. ESPN HoopGurlz ranked her as the No. 25 overall player in her class and the eighth-ranked wing, and she is believed to have scored the most career points in high school in the history of the state of Washington.
McPhee had not practiced with the team this fall while she recovered from a foot injury, though she is expected to see her first game action in this Saturday’s exhibition matchup. She did participate in the team’s summer practice sessions, during which she played “fabulously well,” according to VanDerveer.
“She runs the floor really hard, she scores, she rebounds,” VanDerveer said. “She does everything that we need in her position.”
McPhee’s speed may prove to be one of her most valuable assets as VanDerveer implements her new fast-paced offense. Along with fellow guards Amber Orrange, Lili Thompson, Alex Green, Briana Roberson and Jasmine Camp, McPhee will help usher in a new look to the Cardinal program that will perhaps make them an even more dominant force in women’s basketball.
Despite some moments of homesickness, McPhee’s transition to being a student-athlete at Stanford has been relatively smooth.
“[The academic and athletic schedule] hasn’t been too crazy yet,” McPhee said. “I know that once games start going it gets a lot harder but so far all the resources made available have made it pretty easy.”
“[Practice] is really good,” she added. “All the upperclassmen are really inviting and helpful.”
As the regular season approaches, the freshmen cannot wait to get started and to make their marks on the Cardinal basketball program. But in the meantime, they have been able to take a step back and appreciate being a student-athlete here at Stanford.
“[I’ll just be] randomly riding my bike down somewhere, driving down Palm Drive, and think, ‘This is beautiful, I am so lucky to be here,’” Johnson said. “I have to make the most of it.”
The freshman will have one more opportunity to impress the coaches and showcase their skills in Saturday’s exhibition game against UC San Diego before the season opener at Maples against Boston College next Friday. This Saturday’s game against the Tritons also holds significance as it’s the first time that both VanDerveer sisters will coach head to head, as Heidi VanDerveer is the head coach for UC San Diego.