Stanford was voted to finish tied for second in the Pac-12 at the conference’s media day Wednesday, and the Cardinal started work Friday afternoon to prove that prediction was one spot short.
If there was any doubt about the energy level of Hall of Fame head coach Tara VanDerveer to tackle the challenges of a very tough schedule, that was answered when she casually dropped into a conversation that she signed a three-year contract extension in July.
The master teacher is eager to see what the new team can do.
“This is probably the least I’ve known about our team at this time (of the offseason), but the most excited. I just know that we have great players. I just lay in bed at night thinking, ‘Gosh, I have to think of something good to do with these guys,’” she said.
For VanDerveer, who last season coached her 1,000th win and 13th trip to a Final Four, there is no greater compliment she can give than a player is a hard worker.
Leadership was a keyword in the conversation with VanDerveer, senior Brittany McPhee and junior Alanna Smith because of the excellent chemistry among last season’s team. VanDerveer has often spoken of the standard that was set by graduated players Erica McCall, Briana Roberson and Karlie Samuelson.
“You have the advantage of seeing good leadership, so you know what it looks like,” VanDerveer said of this year’s team. “You know what it feels like and know that it in fact makes a difference. Britt doesn’t want to have bad leadership on her watch, or Alanna or Kayle (Kaylee Johnson). They don’t want to have bad leadership on their watch, because obviously they have to be the leaders.”
The team took significant steps off the court to come together during a trip to Italy.
Progress on the court has included learning changes to the offense and filling the roles held by McCall, Roberson and Samuelson.
McPhee has worked on her three-point shooting, but said she doesn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on that part of her game. There are several other players on the team who also are comfortable on the arc, and McPhee knows that her best move to score three points is to drive and finish through contact.
“I don’t really know where it came from,” she said that ability. “I guess my dad at Gonzaga I’ve been told played the same way. He would just go in there and no one would know which way he was going up. I’ve always wanted to emulate that. It just kind of happened. The funnest part to me is when we finish working out and practicing … we all go and try crazy finishes.”
This season McPhee wants to create more scoring chances for others when she drives into the paint. She nodded toward Smith, who will likely be on the receiving end of many of those passes: “Playing with her is going to be fun.”
Opposing defenses may not use that word to describe defending the versatile Australian forward, who has worked on improving her ball handling so she can be more effective on the perimeter. Already tough to stop near the basket, Smith wants more balance in her game.
The Cardinal will need her to start hot on the court, along with McPhee, Marta Sniezek, Kaylee Johnson, DiJonai Carrington and other players who have experience. Stanford’s first two games are at Ohio State and then against UConn also in Columbus, Ohio.
“We’re going to get some battle scars,” VanDerveer said. “We’re playing some really tough teams. We’re going to learn a lot about ourselves. I don’t know how pretty it’s going to be early, but it will be good when it counts.”
One significant reason for why the team could be a much tougher out in March than in November is the four youngsters.
“Our freshmen are good,” VanDerveer said. “They’re good. It’s fun to see … these are workers. These are kids in the gym a lot.”
Of course, even the most talented newcomers are still going to be a bit wide eyed in certain situations. They will lean on the upperclassmen to get their bearings.
“They know what it feels like to be at the Final Four and win Pac-12 championships,” VanDerveer pointed to Smith and McPhee. “It’s not going to be a surprise for them. The freshmen, they don’t know anything. They don’t even know what basket we shoot at. Our returners will lead the way.”
Eventually the freshmen may do some leading of their own.
Wing/forward Alyssa Jerome’s basketball IQ was “impressive” in Italy. Kiana Williams is an “exceptional young point guard” and Estella Moschkau “may be our best three point shooter.”
And VanDerveer predicted that 6-3 forward Maya Dodson will be the first Cardinal to dunk in a game.
“Everyone has potential to help our team,” she said of the 14-player roster. “I can’t say I would have really said it and believed it this time last year or five years or ten years ago.”
Other quotes and notes from VanDerveer
Significance of dunking: “It’s just fun. You always want to have a hook. What real Stanford fan doesn’t want to see that? They want to say, 'I was there for that.' It’s going to happen. I don’t know if it’s going to happen in warm-ups, the first game or the second or whenever. It’s going to happen. I want to be there because it has never happened before.”
The Final Four loss to South Carolina: “I just wish I could have seen the outcome had Karlie stayed healthy. That’s where I go in my mind.
"I’m very proud of our team. We had a great year. We loved playing with each other and traveling with each other. We had huge wins.
“I think our Washington win was maybe our biggest win. That set the tone for the rest of the season. We never got discouraged. We showed great grit. Even though we lost to Oregon State twice we got them when it counted (in the PAC-12 tournament). I think those are things that will stick with this team.
“The last game for me is can we have Karlie for 40 minutes and then tell me what happens.”
Go back and give advice when starting as a coach: “Enjoy each day of practice. Don’t be looking forward all the time. Enjoy each practice, each game, the players you are coaching now. When I look back and I go in the locker room and see all the names of all the great players ... and Chiney’s jersey, ‘Wow, I coached them.’ It goes really fast. Enjoy it.”
When did your mindset change: “It happened when we lost to Harvard in that we had been ranked No. 1 and were the No. 1 seed and all of a sudden it was over just like that. I’m like, ‘Wow, I was always looking forward to the tournament. What is your seed going to be like?’ Who cares. Be healthy and enjoy every day.”
Australia-U.S. basketball differences: “There is a lot of competition to get better. In Australia there is a smaller pool. The one thing with us … is we work really hard within that small group. One thing that I’ve heard is that Aussies are known for their toughness and their grit. I think that’s pretty cool.”
Yes, she eats vegemite: “Two pots of it back in my room at Stanford. I eat it for breakfast.”
Favorite class: Soundtracks - Music and migration in the 20th century