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What's next for Stanford: A conversation with Tara VanDerveer

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Erica McCall and head coach Tara VanDerveer after defeating Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.
USA TODAY Sports Images

More than a month has passed since Stanford lost in the Final Four to eventual champion South Carolina. In the locker room after the game, the seniors -- Karlie Samuelson, Erica McCall and Briana Roberson -- comforted their younger teammates in one of their last acts as team leaders.

The challenge of replacing the respected trio occupies the top spot on the to-do list for this spring and summer. That includes what those departing players gave on and off the court, head coach Tara VanDerveer told Cardinal Sports Report.

“We lost a lot when you look at the numbers,” she said. “But probably what we lost more than anything would be our leadership and how well people played together based on the resilience of our three seniors. In some ways we can look at the physical things we lost, but the intangibles -- who is really going to step up in all those areas?”

Marta Sniezek, Alanna Smith, Brittany McPhee and Kaylee Johnson return as a core group with extensive playing experience. Each have an ability to be leaders in their own ways, VanDerveer said.

“They’ve had a chance to watch,” she said. “They know what it looks like and feels like. I think they’re excited about the opportunity.”

The Cardinal finished the 2016-2017 season with 32 wins and they accomplished that mark without a single All-American. Throughout the season the unit worked together and defeated several top-10 teams which featured some of the best individual players in the country.

While Stanford will have five former high school All-Americans on next season’s roster, they will be freshmen and sophomores who need to come together behind the more experienced players on the team.

Which is why it is particularly well timed that this summer Stanford is able to take the once-every-four-years trip overseas. The Cardinal will be in Italy from Sept. 5-15.

“I think it can be a great opportunity to play together and we’ve benefited a lot (from past trips),” she said. “It’s a great trip. It’s a bonding trip. I think that works on the intangibles as much as anything else. And you get time on the court … especially if you have a young team and you’re going to try to do some new things.”

Without giving away too much, VanDerveer said there will be some changes to the offense to give it more of a “Warriors-ish” feel, as she called it.

“More ball movement, more cutting … just a quicker pace and more ball movement,” she said. “We’re going to work hard to really accomplish that in the summer.”

What won’t change is the priority that VanDerveer places on rebounding and the need to find three-point shooting to replace the considerable loss of Samuelson graduating.

Simply put, if a player can rebound she will play. More is expected from returning players Smith and Fingall to complement Johnson, who is a reliable rebound-grabber. And the list extends to wing Brittany McPhee and incoming freshman Maya Dodson, who will arrive as the Georgia Player of the Year.

“Maya can rebound,” VanDerveer said. “That’s her strength. And obviously we lost our top rebounder with Bird (Erica McCall).”

No one is expected to shoot 48 percent from three like Samuelson. Coaches can go entire careers without having a player who can do that while playing as many minutes as the former Cardinal. But the competition is open for players who may be able to carve out a role as a specialist -- junior Alexa Romano and sophomore Mikaela Brewer were two possibilities mentioned.

The general point: There are plenty of opportunities to earn playing time.

“I think this is a great offseason for someone like DiJonai (Carrington),” VanDerveer said. “Maybe she says, ‘I’m going to be in that starting lineup.’ Maybe Alexa Romano says, ‘It’s going to be me.’ Or it’s going to be both of them. Maybe it’s someone like Nadia, who has played for us. Someone like Shannon (Coffee) can step up for us. It’s going to be exciting to see who puts the extra time in.”

Several players who Cardinal fans are sure to want to see for different reasons are Anna Wilson and the incoming freshmen.

For Wilson the main issue is staying healthy. After needing months to recover from a concussion, she then injured her foot and was in a walking boot for several weeks. Stanford is petitioning for a medical redshirt.

“She is key,” VanDerveer said. “I think this year may have been a fluke. Let’s see what she can do the next three or four years. Hopefully she gets another year. She can be a great player for us. We’re very excited about Anna.”

Wilson will not be the only former McDonald’s All-American point guard on the team next season. Kiana Williams of San Antonio is a top-10 overall prospect who was recently the West MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic in New York City.

“She’s the real deal and we’re very excited that she’s coming to Stanford,” VanDerveer said. “It all starts with your point guard and how well the point guard plays. We hope to have three healthy point guards and you can always play two of them together. Or three if you need to.”

Incoming wings Estella Moschkau (Madison, Wisconsin) and Alyssa Jerome (Ontario, Canada) are “great three-point shooters and have good size. We’re expecting them to contribute.” Moschkau was Wisconsin's female athlete of the year regardless of sport.

Helping to coach the perimeter players is a new assistant coach, Lindy La Rocque. In several ways it’s a perfectly timed arrival of the former Cardinal. Best known during her four seasons at Stanford for her tenacious style of play and approach to learning the game, La Rocque will have extra summer practices to work with a young group of guards and wings ready to be taught.

“We kind of teased (her) about this, but when Lindy played if we were doing a new drill and asked, ‘How did that drill work?’ we’d go, ‘Let’s ask Lindy, she’ll know,’” VanDerveer said. “We’re really excited that she’s back.”

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