Hitting the road for the first time

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.

STANFORD, Calif. -- By college student standards, the hour is a little ungodly.

It's 8 a.m. at Stanford. The traffic on nearby freeways is already bumper-to-bumper, but the area around the Stanford athletic department is quiet, tranquil.

The Cardinal have been on the floor in Maples Pavilion for an hour, playing out their final preparations for Friday night's season opener against Texas in Austin.

It will be an early defining game for the new-look Cardinal -- against a ranked opponent on the road -- and will provide a very quick barometer of where they stand among the nation's best.

The early practice time is necessary, because by 1 p.m. the team will be boarding buses headed for San Jose International Airport for the first road trip of the 2011-12 season.

Necessary, but a little painful for the players.

Senior center Sarah Boothe decided that an alarm clock ringing before sunrise was not the way to go for her.

"I slept in the locker room," Boothe said. "Our couches there are really comfortable. I didn't want to chance it. I haven't had to get up that early in a while."

When Boothe rolled into the team locker room after midnight on Wednesday, she was not alone.

Freshman Taylor Greenfield had already staked her claim to one of the couch spots.

"She woke up before me and I think it scared her to see a big body laying on the other couch," Boothe said.

Greenfield had been in the locker room since about 9 p.m., doing homework, enjoying the solitude. She brought a fleece blanket along for warmth. She had taken her contact lenses out, so when she woke up and saw Boothe sharing the space, she jumped.

"I saw this white blob and it was her feet," Greenfield said. "I didn't know who it was at first."

Freshman Jasmine Camp was the first one to arrive and find them.

"I opened the door and saw them and I didn't want to wake them up," Camp said. "Taylor was half off the edge, and I didn't want to turn on the lights."

Senior Lindy La Rocque said her alarm clock went off at 6:15. She rolled out of bed and rolled to campus. Good thing the roads were clear.

"I was sleeping and biking," La Rocque said. "And I was dressed like an Eskimo. It was cold. I had on my beanie and my sweatshirt and my sweats and my moccasins and a jacket."

Don Feria/isiphotos.com

Freshman Erica Payne has a laugh after falling for a joke by assistant coaches Amy Tucker and Kate Paye on the bus headed to San Jose International Airport.

Practice wrapped a little early, the Cardinal standing in a circle at midcourt by 8:45 a.m. The sound of the heater, trying mightily to warm a chilly gym, almost drowned out coach Tara VanDerveer as she talked to her team about their first journey of the new season. The morning light streamed through the upper windows at Maples onto the court where the players stood listening to VanDerveer's instructions.

She apprised them of the itinerary, reminders most likely meant for the six freshmen having this experience for the first time.

When VanDerveer was done, the players headed over to the folding table on the sideline to make their contributions to the wall of well-wishing notes for the football team, who will face Oregon on Saturday in the biggest matchup in the nation.

Associate head coach Amy Tucker provided large sticky notes and markers. Tucker was going to stick them on the glass walls in the athletic department building, where the football players would see them later in the day.

"Dear Ducks. Bye-Bye. Sincerely, The Tree," read one.

"Damage the Ducks," read another.

And then they scattered. Most were headed to class, others to get more shut-eye. Some -- like VanDerveer -- still had to pack.

"I haven't packed yet. I still need to shower and walk the dogs," the coach said.

Boothe had her packing done already. It didn't take as long as it used to.

"I love the freshmen, they are so excited and they are asking us what they should pack," Boothe said. "I remember my first trip. I packed, like, my whole wardrobe for a one-day trip. Now I bring like two things in a duffle."

Four of the players on Stanford's team -- Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, and freshmen Amber Orrange and Alex Green -- hail from Texas. They will be going to their home state to play in front of large groups of family, friends and former teammates and coaches.

"I've got friends from UT coming, my mom's coworkers are coming," Chiney Ogwumike said. "I love it. More people who are there cheering for you means less people cheering against you. But a crowd's a crowd. It's time to get to work."

The players start to wander back to the locker room at about 12:15, getting ready for the 1 p.m. bus departure.

Video coordinator Lauren Greif is rolling equipment out of the coaches' lounge, taking her personal travel bag, a rolling cart with video equipment, a projector and a long case that holds the projector screen for the team's pregame film session.

Sophomore Toni Kokenis and Chiney Ogwumike watch Greif roll out the gear, already knowing something their freshmen teammates have yet to discover.

"I'm happy we don't have to carry that stuff anymore," Kokenis said.

That job goes to the freshmen. As if on cue, Green walks out of the locker room and Greif calls her over to introduce her to "Billy," the name she's given to the rolling cart.

"You'll be in charge of getting Billy off the bus at the airport, checking it and getting from baggage claim back on the bus," Greif explains to Green, while Kokenis and Ogwumike look on, grinning.

"OK," Green said. "Wait, are you being serious right now?"

Oh, yes.

Next out is freshman wing Bonnie Samuelson, who has hit a combined 10 treys in the Cardinal's first two exhibition games. Samuelson will be in charge of the newly named "Miranda," the case that holds the projector screen.

"What is that?" Samuelson says, looking a little horrified.

Greif will rotate the gear assignments, trip by trip, for the freshmen.

Kokenis says to Samuelson, "You're lucky it's only a two-day trip."

It's time to disprove the belief that most college athletes travel on charter flights, slide through private security and don't have to wait in line at baggage claim like the rest of us. The Cardinal are heading to Texas on a commercial flight: Southwest Airlines, San Jose to Austin, a nonstop.

Stanford has an in-house travel agency, and office administrator DeeDee Zawaydeh, who has worked with the women's basketball program for years, booked group tickets for this trip. The Cardinal will board together and then will scatter to find open seats.

The players will watch movies, listen to music -- a couple might get summoned to sit next to VanDerveer to break down film.

La Rocque is going to get some homework done. "I have a paper due on Monday in my senior writing class," she said.

No time like the present. It's going to be a busy weekend. The Cardinal will get home just in time for the players to hustle over to Stanford Stadium for the biggest football game anyone can remember and then get a good night's sleep in time for Sunday's regular-season home opener against Gonzaga.

But first, there is a bus to be boarded.

The players file outside to the loading dock at Maples Pavilion, just as the men's team from Central Arkansas arrives for Thursday night's basketball game. Director of basketball operations Eileen Roche hands each player an envelope with eight dollars of meal money to cover Saturday morning's breakfast, joking with most of them, "Don't spend it all in one place."

VanDerveer makes her way onto the bus and stands near the front, surveying her team.

She comes back down the stairs.

"We have to do our check," VanDerveer said. "Make sure everybody has shoes and uniforms. We've left without shoes and uniforms before. I just want to make sure we are ready."

In reality, the Cardinal will find that out Friday night.

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