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Friday, March 30, 2012
Final whirlwind of preparations

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 April.

There were just over 60 hours between the time the Stanford Cardinal defeated Duke in Monday night's Elite Eight game and the buses departed for the airport on the way to Denver, taking the team to its fifth straight Final Four.

The time was a whirlwind of errands and preparation for Sunday's national semifinal against Baylor, with a little downtime for the players. But just a little.

Monday, 11 p.m.

A little more than an hour after Stanford closes the book on an 81-69 victory over Duke, celebrates, cuts down the nets and does media interviews, it's time to board the bus for the three-hour ride from Fresno back to campus.

The players are hungry.

The bus driver stops at a Fresno mall, the players getting the choice of In-N-Out Burger or Chick-fil-A. They take their food and bring it back onto the bus for the ride.

Chatter dies down quickly for a quiet ride home, the bus pulling into campus around 1:20 a.m.

Though it's spring break, the campus remains open and the players head to their dorms.

You might say that at this point, senior Nneka Ogwumike is homeless. She is done with her classes, officially no longer a Stanford student. So she is staying at the Sheraton, the same hotel across the street from campus where the team spent its winter break.

Lonely there? "No, it's nice, actually," Nneka said.

Tuesday, 2 p.m.

After a lot of sleeping in, the Stanford players get their off day started in a variety of ways.

Freshmen Bonnie Samuelson and Erica Payne head to the Stanford mall to pick out dresses for Friday night's Final Four banquet. The banquet is a semiformal affair, the first chance all season the players have had to get really dressed up.

"Yep, got a dress," Samuelson said. "Can't wait."

Payne got a dress, as well, but probably not the one she'll wear to the banquet, she admits a little sheepishly.

"I just liked it," she said.

Amber Orrange, meanwhile, doesn't buy anything new. She said she will have to look through her closet and find something.

Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike join Grace Mashore and Joslyn Tinkle for pedicures at a local nail salon, the continuation of a weekly date for most of them.

By evening, many players head out to the movies to see "The Hunger Games."

"It was mostly the people who'd read the books," senior Sarah Boothe said.

Samuelson's review: "Really, really good."

In the meantime, the coaches break down film on Baylor -- for eight hours.

"Two until 10, and I took a break for dinner," coach Tara VanDerveer said.

VanDerveer also takes a moment or two to watch the Stanford men's basketball team win its NIT semifinal over Massachusetts in New York. But then it's back to Baylor.

Wednesday, 12:45 p.m.

Freshman Jasmine Camp, still recovering from the foot injury that has kept her out of the lineup since December, is alone in a dark Maples Pavilion. She's shooting the basketball and dribbling, her jacket and headphones lying on the sideline.

Up in the women's basketball offices, director of operations Eileen Roche gets a brief visit from one of her two sons, home from college on spring break.

"Except I don't get to see much of him," Roche said, banging away on her computer keyboard, making travel arrangements for the team.

In the coaches' conference room, the Cardinal staff is sitting and facing the whiteboard, where VanDerveer is up front diagramming plays. And downstairs in a small auditorium, staff members set up video equipment for a 1:30 p.m. news conference.

Jimmy V's Sports Café, the eatery inside the Stanford athletic department building, is bustling, packed with student-athletes; while the dorms are open, the dining halls on campus are closed because of spring break. The line for food starts to wind down the hallway.

Boothe is at a table by the window with a book titled "Beautiful Chaos," finally getting a chance for a little pleasure reading with no homework to worry about. She's about a quarter of the way in.

"I started it a long time ago, but I never got back to it," she said.

Boothe says she slept in on Tuesday and then joined her teammates for the movie on Tuesday night. Unlike some of her teammates, she doesn't need to shop for something to wear to the Final Four banquet.

"I'm borrowing a dress from my roommate," she said.

Um, Boothe is 6-foot-5.

"Yeah, she's a rugby player, and she's 6-3, and we share clothes sometimes. I can't wear her pants, but I can wear her dresses," Boothe said. "She has the fancy stuff; I only have casual things."

Joslyn Tinkle is showing off new hot-pink fingernails. She went with the Ogwumike sisters and Mashore to get pedicures on Tuesday. She went back Wednesday morning for her manicure.

Wednesday, 1:30 p.m.

Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike and Toni Kokenis come into the auditorium for a news conference, which includes more than a dozen print reporters and broadcast journalists from local media outlets. They answer questions for about 20 minutes before moving into the hallway to continue the process.

Kokenis also is sporting freshly painted nails, a midnight blue.

"I have been going with kind of a dark-color thing lately," she said. "Now I think it's good luck."

Wednesday, 2 p.m.

VanDerveer, who already has done an NCAA teleconference with the national media, comes to the interview room to meet with the local media. The players head to the weight room for a one-hour workout with strength coach Susan Borchardt.

As the players come into the gym an hour later, Samuelson grabs Borchardt.

"Susan, when you get a minute, will you braid my hair?" Samuelson said.

Wednesday, 3 p.m.

Practice begins with a closed-door film session in the team locker room.

Wednesday, 4 p.m.

The players take the court and listen intently as VanDerveer starts to go over some of the offensive sets they will work on for the next two hours. In fact, the only sound other than VanDerveer's voice is the fan from the air conditioning in the gym.

"This is a good day to be a good screener," VanDerveer tells her players as she outlines the main points of the game plan for Baylor.

Over by the scorer's table, a familiar face.

Former All-American center Jayne Appel is lacing up her shoes. Appel, who played for the WNBA's San Antonio Silver Stars the past two seasons, is training locally to be prepared for camp, and she stopped by to help out.

"I'm here to be the best Brittney I can be," Appel said, referring to Baylor's Brittney Griner.

Andrew Klein, the team's regular practice player who was supposed to simulate Griner before the 2011 NCAA tournament, is out of town, traveling in Italy.

Appel is a living, breathing alternative to Contessa, the jumbo-sized practice dummy the team has been using all season to simulate size in the post. Contessa comes in two forms: a large standing figure or upper torso only, with handles on the back, offering greater mobility for whomever is handling her.

VanDerveer calls Appel out to the center of the defense, encourages her to keep her arms up and be the biggest obstacle she can be at 6-foot-3.

As the Cardinal move past their walk-through, Appel joins her former teammates in layup drills.

Stanford's players move into half-court work and Appel takes the court again, this time wielding a padded stick. Assistant coach Trina Patterson started the drill holding up Contessa, but now is at the other end with her own stick.

"I want you to block shots," VanDerveer said to Appel. "If you can get 'em, get 'em."

And she does get a few as the post players work on their moves in the paint.

Appel stays at practice for a little more than an hour before packing her gym bag and heading out, giving VanDerveer a hug on the way.

As practice ends, Kokenis does a few more media interviews on the phone of sports information director Aaron Juarez, and the players scatter.

Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Many of the players head to manager Natasha von Kaeppler's house for dinner and then back home to pack for the trip to Denver. The coaches, meanwhile, spend another 2½ hours watching film in the office.

Thursday, 10:30 a.m.

The Cardinal hit the practice court at Maples for a couple of hours before it's time to board the buses for Denver. Practice is followed by a light conditioning workout, bridging the time between the end of practice and the departure of the buses in the loading dock behind Maples.

The VIP bus, including athletic department staff, leaves at 1 p.m. The bus that includes the players and coaches leaves at 1:30. Stanford's charter flight is scheduled for wheels up to Denver at 2:30 p.m.

On Wednesday, VanDerveer told a story about being in Denver for a speaking engagement last spring. She drove past the Pepsi Center, the site for this weekend's games.

"I thought then, 'I would do anything to have my team coming back here,'" VanDerveer said.

She also found herself talking out loud, reminding herself that her team had lost senior stalwarts Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen.

"I said, 'Get real,'" VanDerveer said. "But I have to say, I am so excited to be going back to Denver."