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Tara VanDerveer: Stanford women’s basketball head coach discusses the season to come

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In anticipation of the 2019-20 season, Stanford women’s basketball head coach Tara VanDerveer sat down, for the second-straight year, with The Daily’s Daniel Martinez-Krams. Last year’s Pac-12 Tournament champion was picked by the media to finish second to Oregon, who received 19/20 first-place votes. The Cardinal, and its No. 2 recruiting class, take to the court Tuesday for the first of two exhibition games.

Daniel Martinez-Krams (DMK): Last year, we talked about your ability to promote women in coaching. Now, the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) has created a fund for fellowships in your honor, the WSF Tara VanDerveer Fund for the Advancement of Women in Coaching. What does this fellowship mean to you?

Tara VanDerveer (TVD): I think it has gone really well. I think it’s really exciting. This is the first year they’ve given out the money and there are 10 fellows not just for basketball but for all these different sports. There’s two people that really helped promote it a lot. Larry Scott, with the Pac-12, and our former State Representative Becky Morgan. They’re both members of the Women’s Sports Foundation and on its Board of Trustees. It’s really exciting that people have contributed and that these young women are getting a chance to get that experience. 

DMK: You told me last year, entering your 33rd season, that putting a new puzzle together is how you keep coaching fresh. For the first time this year, you had your team undergo “The Program.” What went into that decision and how would you evaluate the outcome?

TVD: This is a new puzzle with a lot of great pieces, and then it’s trying to figure out how to put it together, but I think “The Program” really gets your attention. You know, it’s something our football program has done and men’s basketball has done before. I think it was a great experience for us. Since then, I think we’ve benefited from it and kind of been more vocal. Understanding you’re not going to get what you think you’re going to get, you’re going to get what you earn. 

DMK: When your team breaks from a huddle they say “family.” What does that mean to you and when did that start?

TVD: I think it started either last year or the year before, and I think some of it is just having a themed t-shirt, and last year “family” was our t-shirt. Then Nike used it for all of the NCAA games, but we had it first. I think some of it is, I realized this when I first came to Stanford, a lot of these players are from far away. Alanna [Smith ’19] was from Australia. [Junior forward] Nadia [Fingall] is from Florida. I think it’s really important as a coach, but not just as a coach, but coaches and players, there’s a sisterhood and it is a family atmosphere where people care about you. I think this team has a very strong sisterhood. So it’s not something we just say, but hopefully we mean and live. 

DMK: You had one of the most exciting and enviable tasks in the nation incorporating this extremely talented freshman class into the program. What was that process like? What do you expect from them this season?

TVD: Our freshmen are doing awesome. They are. They’re honestly phenomenal freshmen. And part of it is that the upperclassmen have been excellent mentors for our freshmen, really showing them, teaching them and helping them. It’s extremely competitive. You know, some of it is just how quickly people learn and how hard they practice. It is a big difference, I mean just a little thing, but the basketball court is 10 feet longer in college. They get tired. So I think a lot of it is we’re counting on their contributions from our freshmen, but our upperclassmen have to lead the way.

DMK: With that talent, what has drawing up plays been like? What new wrinkles should fans expect to see?

TVD: Well, I wouldn’t say we’re doing a lot new, we have been focusing on the basics of, you know, ball handling, passing, shooting and defense, not trying to get ahead of ourselves. I think that just doing these more fundamental drills, you just kind of see how talented and how skilled our team and our freshmen are. Then, it’s a matter of playing together and people recognizing that a lot of it’s going to be who takes care of the ball, who’s making shots and who’s going to really defend. We’re not picked to win the Pac-12. We’re not picked to win a national championship. We don’t have any players on our team that were picked in the top five of the Pac-12. I think that people should practice with a little chip on their shoulder.

DMK: Who has impressed you this offseason, from summer workouts to fall practices to now, before exhibition games begin?

TVD: Well, one of the challenges has been the fact that some of our upperclassmen have been out a little bit. DiJonai had surgery over the summer, so she’s not 100%. Nadia is just coming back. We need those people, really because they’re very vocal, they know what to expect, we need them and they’re coming around. In the meantime, I’ll tell you, I’m really impressed with [senior guard] Anna Wilson and how hard she’s been working, how competitive she is. I would say if there was an award for preseason practice, she’d be getting it. Every day she’s been competitive and really working hard. She has shown me that she wants to be out there. I think people that have improved a lot: Anna, [sophomore guard] Lexie Hull and [junior forward] Alyssa Jerome. Those three, through how hard they’re practicing, saying “play me.” Then it’s working around them, you know? And some other people I think have improved a lot, but maybe they’ve been out because of a sprained ankle or cold or something like that.

DMK: There’s playing exhibition games, and then there’s playing exhibition games against Team USA. What kind of challenge does this present to your team? What’s it like welcoming a former player, Nneka Ogwumike ’12, back to the Farm?

TVD: Having been on the other side of it, it just gives them a chance to play together and play against women and showcase their great skills. In order for us to be in the game with them, you have to do the right thing which is great because that gets our team’s attention. You must sprint back, you must box out, you must take care of the ball, otherwise you’re just going to get embarrassed. They’re really, really good. I coached Nneka and she’s even gotten so much better since. Someone like Diana Taurasi is, as you know, probably one of the best basketball players ever. She’ll be in the Hall of Fame along with Sue Bird. These are all Hall of Fame players. So it’ll be a great opportunity for our team to really see what their game can look like.

DMK: There has been talk, obviously surrounding your team, but the conference altogether, and an ESPN article went so far as to suggest three national one seeds out of the Pac-12. What challenge does competing in this conference provide? 

TVD: The Pac-12 has always been very competitive. I just think it’s great. Every game, whether it’s football, volleyball or softball, the Pac-12, everything is extremely competitive. For us in women’s basketball you cannot take a day off, you can’t take a night off. You’ve got to come out ready to play every opponent and our team knows this. Colorado was picked 12th and we had a tough game with them last year there and obviously we lost to Utah, we lost to Oregon badly. Lost to Cal. We played tough games with Arizona, tough games with Washington and Washington was 11th. There’s a certain side of me that enjoys it, but then there’s the other side of me that probably is getting an ulcer or something.

DMK: When this team is at its best, what will it look like?

TVD: We’re going to play fast. When we’re at our best, we’re going to play fast, we’re going to score a lot. We’re going to be a very aggressive team. One of the strengths of our team, I think, should be our depth. I think that we just really need to get a lot of people in.

Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Daniel Martinez-Krams '22 is a desk editor in the sports section. He is originally from Berkeley, California. Contact him at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.