Kiana Williams checked out of the game on Monday for the first time with 33 seconds to play.
Anna Wilson dribbled out the clock on a 62-48 victory.
Both times, a Maples Pavilion crowd would have gone berserk to celebrate the senior and fifth-year starting backcourt instrumental to Stanford winning the Pac-12 regular season title for the first time since 2014. Yet Maples was empty.
The cavernous void has been filled by Gabi Cipolletti and Julia Lee — the crowd of two.
Lee is in her second stint at Stanford and her sixth year total, now as the associate director of fan experience. She started as an intern, spent time at Santa Clara University and returned to the Farm in a full-time position a year and a half ago.
Cipolletti is the assistant director of fan experience. Where Lee spearheads the gameday efforts for the Stanford men’s basketball program, Cipolletti is in charge of women’s basketball. Her one-year anniversary at Stanford passed on Feb. 3, which meant that she had only worked two women’s basketball home games before the pandemic disrupted college sports.
Together, Cipolletti and Lee have assumed the monumental task of making a normal game happen in a very non-normal season. The first half of the game day is scripted, and Cipolletti and Lee have gone to great lengths to ensure that the pregame is as similar as possible to a regular season. The other half is the very unscripted game itself.
The process begins for each event when Cipolletti and Lee make a detailed timeline for every minute leading up to tipoff.
The graphics for the video board are all loaded at least 48 hours before tipoff. Without fans to keep entertained, they have pared down the program, but still work with the digital and video team to create the headshots or tweak the intro videos. They also update the stats boards in each corner of Maples with the correct school logo for that game’s opponent.
The pregame clock starts ticking 90 minutes prior to tipoff when players begin to arrive on the court. The first 20 minutes is a free-for-all warmup on a shared court. After, different people take the court at different times. At home, Stanford will leave the tunnel with about 25 minutes until game time.
One concerted choice was to keep the pregame script consistent, which included everything public address announcer Betty Ann Hagenau would say. Hagenau has been a constant in the women’s program for almost two decades, and when Stanford first takes the court, she welcomes “your Stanford Cardinal” to the arena — even when her audience is unclear in an empty gymnasium.
“It’s kind of weird, to be honest,” Lee said. “Our goal going into the season was to make this season as normal for the teams as possible. As weird as it was going to be having a PA doing starting intros and being loud and excited about the game starting saying, ‘Your Stanford Cardinal,’ those are all things that the fans really enjoy, but it would make it seem like a normal season for the players as well. So it was a conscious decision to do those things in an effort to give the student athletes as good of a year as we can with this really weird circumstance.”
“She has been a consistent voice for the women’s team, and she’s someone that not only the players but also our coaching staff and our fans have come to really enjoy hearing,” Cipolletti said. “She says all the time that she still gets emails from some of our fans saying, ‘Hey, we can hear you on the broadcast,’ and ‘We heard your voice.’”
Around the 13-minute mark, Hagenau announces that the national anthem will be played. During every other year, players lined up on the court as the Dollies signed the anthem. This season, the Stanford players have left the court and moved behind the curtains in the tunnel, and most opponents have done the same.
The team races back to the court for layup lines, which end at approximately five minutes with a Fran Belibi dunk. The last piece before player introductions is a moment of solidarity that the Pac-12 introduced for women’s basketball this season. Every school came up with a phrase, with Stanford’s being “stop the hate.”
Then, the opponent’s lineup is read, the lights are dimmed and Stanford looks to the video board to see the hype tape. With sufficient pomp and circumstance, Hagenau introduces Stanford’s starters and the scripted portion ends.
If the pregame is about a sense of normality, to hear Cipolletti and Lee talk about the game-time decisions is to believe in home court advantage.
“There were a couple games in Santa Cruz with the men’s program that just were really fun to be a part of — the Arizona game, the UCLA game,” Lee said. “When games go down to the wire, and then the home team gets a win, I think a lot of that is keeping the energy up and I like to take just a 1% credit for it. Those two games specifically, I felt really good about the music choices, especially late in the game when it was close and we needed to keep the energy up.”
Music is a key part of their job description. Each event, Cipolletti and Lee plan a music show using a program called Sound Director. First, they separate it by quarters for women’s basketball or halves for the men’s team. Pre-game, they test the audio and have someone on staff to adjust the audio in game if needed.
In a typical season, Cipolletti and Lee would have to cater to the acoustic tastes of the fans and the athletes. There is a “little bit of rap, a little bit of pop top-40, some easy listening,” Lee said. “This year, without having the fans to cater to, we’ve gone pretty much all student-athlete based.”
For this season, stepping into Maples is like bumping into a group of 20-somethings passing around the aux for an hour. Still, there are rules with the music, like ensuring they have the rights to the song and that the song is family friendly. For Cipolletti and Lee, that typically means editing the songs.
“Julie and I listen to every single word, we look at every single lyric and have to edit every song that might have those types of innuendos,” Cipolletti said. “That definitely takes a good amount of time. I personally am not a big rap person, I just don’t listen to a lot of it and I don’t know who the most popular ones are or what the best songs are. It’s been a learning curve just making sure that if this song is going to play, I know that it’s an upbeat rap song and it’s not something that is going to be too slow or opposite of what the team is doing at that moment.”
In the end, it is always worth it. The players are trying to find any excuse to have fun during the game. After Stanford claimed the title, Wilson shared that “me and Haley are always talking during the game. I say things to Lexie to try to make her laugh during the game and stuff. We’re really just trying to make this a fun situation.”
“Getting to see players on the sidelines, dancing pre-game to a rap song that they like or doing a TikTok version of [a] The Weeknd song or something,” Cipolletti said. “It’s definitely worth it and we see how much joy that can bring to those student-athletes.”
It is no surprise that the players love the pregame music blaring. The resistance comes from the bench.
“We can’t even talk to our players from the sideline if the crowd noise is too loud,” members of the coaching staff have told Cipolletti. “We want to make sure that we’re kind of finding a good balance for both the staff and the players and making sure that they’re able to communicate.”
Of course, it is not just the volume of the music but also the content. In Sound Director, Lee and Cipolletti have different sections for quick time outs and more mellow music if the game is entering a slower transition. As Cipolletti put it, there are times for an “Outta Your Mind” or “All the Way Up.”
“If we’ve gone on a little run and the visiting team is calling a time out, panicking a bit, we need to come in with a hot song, something that’s going to keep that energy level up,” Lee said. “It’s definitely a lot different without fans because they bring a lot of that energy, but our song choices reflect those moments and we’ve been able to still do that.”
The music helps augment what is missing — the fans. The Pac-12 tried to address this by mandating fake crowd noise and instating minimum and maximum decibel levels. Going forward into the spring, teams will be able to opt in or out depending on their preferences. With crowd noise a necessity, Cipolletti and Lee have been doing their best to accommodate each team’s preferences.
“Each team likes it a little bit different,” Lee said. “Women prefer it just a little bit more mellow and men like kind of over the top, very loud cheers, as loud as they let us go with decibel level.”
That peak is at 75 decibels. More generally, the crowd noise track is set at the minimum, but will be increased when there is a big 3-pointer. Lee and Cippolletti can play a cheer or play a “yeah” to mimic a hyped Maples crowd.
“The men want to hit that 75 decibel level when the situation calls for it,” Lee said, “and the women are content kind of being a little bit lower. They still want to hear cheers but just not quite as loud.”
On the women’s side, how to navigate the acoustics has been an ongoing conversation throughout the season. First, the move to Santa Cruz created problems, with the audio setup in Kaiser Permanente Arena differing from the one on the Farm.
“So our team was kind of more on the lines of, ‘Can we change this?’ ‘Can we adjust this?’ ‘We think this sounds weird,’ or ‘It’s echoing too much,’ ‘It’s too loud,’ etc,” Cipolletti said. “Whereas once we got into Maples and got the swing of a couple of games in, it seems as though they’ve been a little bit better and just consistent and happy with where we’re at.”
Being away from Maples also meant that some important moments were not celebrated by the Cardinal faithful. First, there was sophomore forward Fran Belibi dunking during a game in Berkeley.
“I honestly really wish it was a home game when we had Fran Belibi dunk for the first time,” Cipolletti said. “We for sure would have hit something huge there and that would have been a lot of fun.”
All of the notes from the team and the points they picked up from the previous four games in Maples led up to the showdown on Monday with the Pac-12 title on the line. ESPN broadcasted the game to a national audience. And Cipolletti and Lee found out about the implications of the game just an hour and a half before tipoff.
The same graphics that the two prefer to have loaded 48 hours in advance were made on the spot. Otherwise, the game went without a hitch. During the pre-game moment of solidarity, Hagenau read both Stanford’s “stop the hate” and Arizona’s “stronger together.”
After a slower start, Stanford distanced itself from Arizona on the way to the championship and Cipolletti played her part.
“As we got into the third quarter there were a couple big moments where we went on some runs and Cameron Brink or Lexie Hull had a great block, and then you know they called a time out right afterwards,” she said.
Cippolletti queued the right song and the team responded with another run.
When Wilson finally dribbled out the clock on the win, while there was no roar from the crowd or storming of the court, there was plenty of reason to celebrate. The trophy and banner were brought out and players got a chance to celebrate in front of the cardboard cutouts.
“Obviously we wish that we could have had fans here, but I know that a lot of people are watching and I’m hoping that some people can come to the Pac-12 tournament and maybe the NCAA Tournament,” VanDerveer said after the win over Arizona. “All the celebrations this year have been with our team, and it’s a great group of women. I’m very, very proud of them.”
“I think we’re really fortunate that we all like each other so much and so we have a good time celebrating together,” Hull said. “At this point in the season, I think we’re all kind of getting used to that. Not necessarily feeding off of the energy from the crowd that we were used to last season and really just firing each other up and getting excited for each other. I think that’s something really special about our team, that we are very excited for one another. We want everyone to succeed, and when we do, it’s super exciting for us.”
Cipolletti and Lee are game management staff and get Tier 2 access to the baseline and scorers table. The photographers, however, are limited to the upper deck by their Tier 3 status. Still, they took photos from above.
“Normally we would be able to choreograph where the photographers are, what side they’re facing, what kind of photos we want,” Cipolletti said. “The team was hyped to get some pictures and the banner and the trophy and all that good stuff.”
The next event will be Senior Day honoring Williams, Wilson and forward Alyssa Jerome. Cipolletti met with the coaching staff to discuss logistics. Some things are set, because the women’s team always does its celebration post-game. Other things are still under discussion, like what social media content and video features will look like. In a first, this Senior Day may incorporate families through Zoom.
The question with Zoom is what screen the parents will be on. A laptop screen seems to undersell the moment. Cipolletti thinks rigging the board used for sponsorships to display faces may be possible and has been working with the technical operations team to make it happen.
At the moment, the plan is for seniors to be escorted by their teammates to receive flowers from the coaching staff so they feel like they have someone physically present. Whether or not the cardboard cutouts make their way to the court is still up for debate.
This weekend is as far ahead as Cipolletti and Lee can plan. With nearly every sport playing this spring, there are 15 games to prepare for this weekend.
During the same game that Belibi first dunked, head coach Tara VanDerveer tied the legendary Pat Summitt for the most wins in women’s college basketball history. Then, VanDerveer passed Summitt to become the winningest coach in the sport at Pacific. While the coach enjoyed the private celebrations that ensued, the fans will be clamoring for a true commemoration. Cipolletti has musings about a one-year anniversary of VanDerveer’s record-breaking achievement, but remains uncertain.
“Next year is a long ways away,” Cipolleti said.