This season, espnW will spend time with the Stanford Cardinal and their Hall of Fame head coach, getting behind-the-scenes access to the players. Come to espnW every Friday throughout the season to get to know the Cardinal and how they live their lives off and on the court, from the start of practice to the last game of the season in March and, perhaps, into April.
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- There are seasons when you rebuild a program, seasons when you reload the roster and seasons, like the one about to unfold at Stanford, when you remake your identity, carve out something new.
Tara VanDerveer had a big summer. In August, she was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. She went to Springfield, Mass., and stood next to Chris Mullin, Artis Gilmore, Dennis Rodman and Tex Winter and took her place in the pantheon of the game.
And then she went back to her lake house in Minnesota to absorb the experience, spending a little time absorbing its meaning. But somewhere in the upper Midwest, that focus shifted from what she'd done to what there is to do now.
Her Cardinal program is firmly, emphatically considered among the elite in women's college basketball. Four straight trips to the Final Four will do that. But the trophy case at Stanford is empty. There is no national championship to show for all that success, all that talent, all those wins.
Four years of coming oh so close, and then disappointment.
But every season begins with the promise of a championship waiting at the end of the journey. The Cardinal started practice at Maples Pavilion on Tuesday, the official first day of the 2011-12 season.
This will be an interesting season and team, representing the biggest makeover VanDerveer has done to her program in many years.
"This is an interesting team," VanDerveer said. "There's no Kayla [Pedersen] or Jeanette [Pohlen], who were so prominent for us for four years. But we are a faster team, top to bottom. And we have a lot of freshmen, and they are doing really, really well."
There is still considerable talent at Stanford -- starting with All-American Nneka Ogwumike and her sublimely athletic young sister, Chiney. But there is also youth, with six freshmen showing up on campus this summer to begin their Cardinal careers, a recruiting class ranked No. 6 in the country last season. And relative inexperience. Forty-minute-a-game players like Pedersen and Pohlen are gone, leaving a lot of familiar faces who must make the jump from role players to regular players.
VanDerveer said her mantra in these early days will be, "Keep it simple."
There will be no rolling out the ball and building on the plays from the year before.
"We really have to slow it down and explain things; we need to think about what we are doing in terms of simplicity," VanDerveer said. "It will be interesting to see who ends up in our rotations."
The biggest question mark will be at point guard, where a replacement for the steady and often stellar Pohlen needs to be found. Sophomore Toni Kokenis spent quite a bit of time at the point last season, and she's going to be pushed by two of the freshmen: Amber Orange of Houston, the No. 15-ranked recruit in the nation, and Jasmine Camp of Ellenwood, Ga.
They bring speed to the position that VanDerveer hasn't had for a while, if ever.
"It hurt us in the North Carolina game [in the NCAA tournament] and against Texas A&M [in the national semifinal]," VanDerveer said. "Without team speed, you can only do so much. I think we can do a lot of things with this team, particularly on the defensive end."
The Cardinal will still have size with juniors Joslyn Tinkle, Mikaela Ruef and Sarah Boothe, who all played off the bench last season.
And there is always the considerable talent of the Ogwumike sisters, who can simply outjump almost anyone else in the country. Nneka is the senior who will assume the majority of the leadership burden.
"She is playing head and shoulders above everybody at this point," VanDerveer said. "She will make other people better, but she does not have to do everything. Right now, she's really comfortable in a lot of places on the floor."
Chiney, a sophomore, needs to "let the game come to her," VanDerveer said.
"The most important improvement a player makes is in between their freshman and sophomore years," VanDerveer said. "Chiney just needs to remember to do what she's good at."
VanDerveer said she is not calibrating expectations for this team -- even with its infusion of youth and the fact that other programs, such as Baylor and Notre Dame, might have supplanted the Cardinal early on with higher rankings and more national championship buzz.
"My message is that we will outwork people and we will out-improve people," VanDerveer said. "When you have six freshmen, playing in November and December is going to be a challenge. But by the time February and March come around, these freshmen will be playing like sophomores and they will be doing really well. That's what counts."