On paper, it might appear that Stanford women’s basketball has insurmountable challenges ahead of them. There is the loss of three key senior leaders from last year’s Final Four team, the addition of new freshmen still adjusting to the college game, a difficult early season slate against high-caliber opponents and, of course, the perennial lofty expectations that come from playing under head coach Tara VanDerveer.
But to the upperclassmen who are redefining themselves as team leaders this preseason, these challenges are exciting. If anything, they see the change of personnel as an opportunity for them to create their own team culture.
“It doesn’t really matter if you lose one player of four players, the team dynamic will still be completely different,” said senior forward Kaylee Johnson. “It’s not something you can just replicate. We have to cultivate it into something different, something of our own this year.”
Johnson and star guard Brittany McPhee are the only two seniors on the Cardinal roster. And while last year’s seniors — Brianna Roberson, Erica McCall and Karlie Samuelson — left big shoes to fill, Johnson and McPhee are prepared to take the reins.
“We lost major players but I think people are ready to step up, and we are still super close so it should be fun,” McPhee said.
Changes and personnel turnover are an unavoidable part of the college game. Each year, some players graduate while others arrive on campus. Many players spoke of how tightly-knit last year’s squad was, but Johnson thinks it would be a mistake to simply aim to recreate what they had.
“I think that’s where we could go wrong, if we just tried to contain this to be the exact same thing as last year,” Johnson said. “I think that’s where we would fall apart.”
On the court as well, Johnson and McPhee will be critical to the Cardinal’s success. Johnson had to overcome a foot injury last season, but still started 23 games for the Cardinal, providing a dominant presence on the glass. Her role as a rebounder will be crucial for a Stanford team that lacks a traditional center.
McPhee is arguably the star of this team, coming off a season in which she averaged 13.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. In the NCAA tournament, she averaged almost 17 points per game, including a 27-point performance to lead Stanford to an Elite Eight victory over Notre Dame.
McPhee said last year’s tournament run serves as motivation to return to college basketball’s biggest stage.
“From last year we’ve learned that it’s really a process,” McPhee said. “Every single thing is building to the end goal.”
As they work towards that goal, the Stanford seniors won’t be leading on their own. Other Cardinal upperclassmen, including junior guard Marta Sniezek and junior forward Alanna Smith, have also emerged as leaders. If anything, this Cardinal team will not be led by one or two individuals, but by a committee of upperclassmen.
“We do have leaders on our team, but I think our coaches strive to have everybody kind of pitching in, having this collectiveness about our team, and I think it really helps,” said sophomore forward Nadia Fingall. “Everybody’s different, we have people that will talk, we have people that will lead by example, so just having everybody kind of pitching into the team chemistry is a big part of how we operate.”
The strength of this Cardinal team will be tested early with games against Connecticut and Ohio State, two powerhouse programs. For the upperclassmen, these games are a not only a chance for the freshmen to face elite competition, but also for the entire team dynamic to be strengthened.
“I think we’re really ready for it. We’re young, but we’re so keen to play,” Smith said. “We just want to play and I think playing teams like that gets the ball rolling straight away. You don’t start off on the back foot, you have to start strong, so I think that will be really good for us.”
As always on the Farm, the Final Four is not a pipe dream, but an expectation. For the seniors, this is their final chance to win a championship, giving them extra motivation to lead effectively and do what they can to build a unified and confident team.
“When you are a senior, you feel a sense of urgency because it’s your last go-round, so Kaylee and Brit are being really vocal,” said associate head coach Kate Paye.
But no one player, or even two, can carry a team to an NCAA championship. Both players and coaches know this, and while they look to Johnson and McPhee for experience and leadership, the Cardinal’s success will ultimately rest on how well all the different pieces fit into place.
“Leadership is really a team thing. Different people lead in different ways, and we are going to need everybody where we are trying to go,” Paye said.
Despite the various challenges this team will face, there is a collective confidence on the Farm. It seems to be grounded in the strong leadership displayed by the upperclassmen thus far as well as the contributions from all players.
“I think top to bottom we’ve just got a strong group — really exceptional young women who are really hardworking,” VanDerveer said. “We’re excited — I think you can tell that.”
Contact Gregory Block at gblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.