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Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Pillow Pets, sleep cams and bus rides

By Michelle Smith

This season, espnW is spending time with the Stanford Cardinal and Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer, 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 on and off the court, from the start of practice to the final game of the season in March and, perhaps, into April.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It takes a little less than two hours to get from Tempe to Tucson on a charter bus, a long, straight ride on Highway 10 with cacti and sagebrush and red desert mountain peaks streaking past the windows.

That's two hours of time for the No. 4-ranked Stanford women's basketball team to catch up. On film. On stats. On homework. On sleep.

"There will be a lot of sleeping," coach Tara VanDerveer warns the night before, moments after Stanford's 62-49 win over Arizona State, the first game of the second half of the Pac-12 season. "That's what they do."

The bus that will take the Cardinal to Tucson for Saturday's game against Arizona leaves Friday at 11 a.m. Sharp.

The morning begins with breakfast at the team hotel (with the room set up in the usual square formation and wheat germ pancakes in the warmer), followed by a quick pack-up in the rooms for players and staff, and then it's boarding time.

Video director Lauren Greif is usually the first on the bus by virtue of the fact that her menagerie of bulky video equipment has to be loaded first into the storage area.

Eileen Roche, the team's director of operations, is waiting out front, striking up a conversation with the bus driver, who is wearing a new Stanford cap.

Freshman Bonnie Samuelson and senior Lindy La Rocque, the first two players to arrive, load their bags and climb aboard. La Rocque is traveling with a friend, her panda Pillow Pet named Arthur, tucked under her arm.

The Pillow Pets, large, soft stuffed animals, are popular additions to the Cardinal traveling party. Four players, La Rocque, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike and Toni Kokenis, have brought theirs along on this trip.

"Ah, man, I should have brought mine," freshman Taylor Greenfield said.

Kokenis is credited with starting the trend. Her tiger is named Ralphie.

Chiney Ogwumike has a turtle named Chester. Nneka Ogwumike's bunny is named Peyaer.

"It's pronounced like 'Pierre,'" Nneka said. "But not the traditional spelling."

The Ogwumike sisters received theirs as Christmas gifts from their younger sisters back home in Houston.

"We wanted to give them something easy to get for us," Chiney said.

This ride is one of the longer bus trips of the season. During the nonconference schedule, Stanford made a three-hour bus ride from Palo Alto to Fresno to face Fresno State. There's a chance they could do it again during the NCAA tournament because Fresno is a predetermined regional site.

But for the most part, bus rides are confined to short trips to and from hotels to game sites.

Like so many of the other things the team does off the court, riding the bus is a testament to ritual and tradition.

All seating arrangements are predetermined. The back half of the bus is taken up by the players, seated in order of class, freshman to senior, from front to back. The only empty row on the bus houses the ice chest full of cold water bottles for the ride.

Nneka Ogwumike has the very last seat in the back. She's earned her spot as the senior captain.

"People are way cooler in the back," Nneka said with a smile. "The freshmen ... I don't know what goes on up there."

VanDerveer sits on the left side of the bus, up front, just behind the driver. Behind her is assistant coach Trina Patterson.

Associate head coach Amy Tucker anchors the right side, with assistant Kate Paye behind her.

The bus hasn't been on the road for more than 10 minutes when the players from the back relay the message that they would like to have the air conditioning turned on. It's like a game of telephone, the message passed from row to row until Roche lets the bus driver know.

Almost immediately, the bevy of laptops opens in the front of the bus, coaches and staff checking stats, watching film, getting the scout plan ready for Friday afternoon's practice when they arrive in Tucson.

VanDerveer asks about the state of the conference standings -- the Cardinal have a three-game lead through 10 games.

Sports information director Aaron Juarez rides with a pair of sombreros from a local Mexican restaurant chain hanging from his seat.

Every year on the Arizona trip, VanDerveer hands out a pair of sombreros to the players who lead the team in rebounding and field goal percentage for the weekend. Those players are required to wear their rewards into the airport, through security and into the gate area.

"Some players embrace this tradition more enthusiastically than others," Juarez said.

The only active player on the trip to wear the sombrero is senior guard Grace Mashore.

The players chat during the early miles of the bus ride, James checking with Kokenis about whether she's listened to a class lecture online yet. Another player asks whether anyone has Wi-Fi on her iPad.

About 20 minutes into the ride, the back of the bus gets quiet. Headphones are on, hoods pulled up, Pillow Pets tucked under heads.

Some players are studying -- Kokenis is hitting her human biology book, Sara James has a cell biology textbook in her lap -- and others are sleeping.

Nneka Ogwumike tweets from the bus:

"Ahhh feel so responsible getting my homework/reading done on this busride. B-) #NerdinItUp."

All is quiet for a long stretch, the white noise of the air conditioning humming along with the miles, until there's a small commotion near the back. Chiney Ogwumike has pulled out her video camera to catch senior Sarah Boothe on her "sleep cam." She's been capturing unsuspecting snoozing teammates throughout the season for her "Real Ladies of Maples" video features.

Boothe wakes up and laughter erupts. A slumbering La Rocque looks like the next victim.

About 30 minutes later, the bus pulls off the freeway and players begin to stir. As the bus pulls into the Marriott lot in the middle of the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, the players quietly file off and head up to their rooms, Roche handing out room keys in the lobby. The players will have a little downtime and some lunch before practice.

At the end of practice comes another Arizona tradition -- the annual two-on-two basketball game in which VanDerveer and Paye each picks a player to play two-on-two while the rest of the team watches. This year's matchup pits VanDerveer and senior guard Mashore against Paye and forward Erica Payne. VanDerveer and Mashore win 22-21 on a 3-pointer by Mashore with 4 seconds left on the clock.

The Cardinal's weekend ends with a 40-point victory over the Wildcats, a change from a recent spate of close wins against Pac-12 foes.

And it ends with Chiney Ogwumike and freshman Amber Orrange wearing the sombreros into the Tucson airport.

There was not quite enough time to sleep on the bus ride to the airport, but who sleeps after a win?

"We are much more lively after we win a game," Chiney Ogwumike said.