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Friday, April 20, 2012
Tara VanDerveer issues challenge

By Michelle Smith

This season, espnW spent time with the Stanford Cardinal and Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer, getting behind-the-scenes access to the players throughout the season so you can 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. This is the last installment.

STANFORD, Calif. -- The Faculty Club is tucked away in a relatively nondescript corner of the Stanford campus, beyond the row of fraternity houses, adjacent to the bookstore. Students are riding their bikes and playing soccer on a nearby field on a sunny spring night, while inside the club the Stanford women's basketball team is closing the book on the 2011-12 season.

The team is holding its annual postseason banquet on this Wednesday evening, hosting the largest gathering in the event's history. It is a true sellout, the basketball office having to turn some late-comers away and set up a table outside on the patio to accommodate support staff so that players, boosters and family members can fit inside the dining room.

The dining area is quiet as the event begins, coach Tara VanDerveer coming into the room with her tote bag, which she sets on a table as she begins to dig through it.

"I need to find my speech," VanDerveer said, pulling out a small pile of paper and her glasses, both of which she sets on the podium at the front of the room. She won't need either for about an hour. "I have to make sure I can see."

In the courtyard outside, players are mingling with team boosters and guests, posing for pictures, getting refills of lemonade and punch.

The Cardinal players are dressed up for the occasion in skirts and dresses, wearing heels that make them significantly taller than they already are.

Senior Lindy La Rocque has undergone something of a makeover. Within two days after the team got home from its national semifinal loss to Baylor in Denver, La Rocque cut 15 inches off her hair, donating it to a cancer charity.

"It went from being the longest it's ever been to the shortest," La Rocque said, sporting a layered, shoulder-length bob. "It's my look for the grown-up world. Is it working?"

A few other players are sporting new looks, including junior Joslyn Tinkle and senior Grace Mashore, who have new piercings in their noses.

"A few of us went out one day," Mashore said.

Mashore jokes that her parents are going to take it out for her when she gets home.

"My mom is warming up to mine," Tinkle said.

Mikaela Ruef was part of that group, but there was no nose piercing for her. She got second holes done in her ears.

Players have taken the past couple of weeks since the Final Four to relax and focus on school. "Just trying to be more normal," as sophomore Sara James puts it.

Tinkle and a group of friends took a trip to Southern California for the Coachella Music Festival last weekend.

"It was great to be able to take some time and get away," she said.

Sophomore guard Toni Kokenis has been spending time with her Stanford bandmates, going to Monday night rehearsals and performing at men's volleyball and lacrosse matches.

"I feel like I'm really on top of my homework for the first time all year," Kokenis said.

"Don't let your father hear you say that," said her mother, Marie Kokenis, who flew in from Chicago.

"What? It's hard during the season," Kokenis replies.

Sarah Boothe is in a side room off the courtyard, chatting with a small group of boosters. Her younger brother Nathan is being introduced around.

Boothe has one year of eligibility remaining, but having completed her degree in psychology and endured a series of injuries throughout her career, including a foot injury that cost her 14 games this season, she has decided not to return to the team. She is planning to go to graduate school.

"I agonized over it for the last 2½ months of the season," Boothe said. "I told Tara when we got back. It's time to move on."

The freshmen, all six of them, have had their first chance to have a singular focus since they arrived on campus in the fall, being students for a brief time, rather than student-athletes.

"I think I've even met a few new people," forward Erica Payne said.

It has not been as relaxing a time for the Ogwumike sisters, Nneka and Chiney, who traveled to Los Angeles the weekend after the Final Four for the Wooden Award ceremony, where they both were finalists. Last week, Chiney accompanied Nneka to Connecticut for the WNBA draft. Nneke was the No. 1 overall pick, by the Los Angeles Sparks.

"Nneka and I were talking and we were saying, 'Did you ever think we would be doing this at all?'" Chiney said. "It's been crazy."

VanDerveer, who has been moving around, occasionally reminding her players to "mingle," walks over to say hello.

"Wait, I need a picture with you and Nneka," Chiney said to the coach, and about half a dozen people with cameras come over to get their snaps in as well.

As everyone is called into the dining hall for the start of dinner, the players and coaches disperse. Each player sits at a separate table, with family members, boosters and, in some cases, the people who have endowed the players' scholarships.

Susan Borchardt, the team's strength coach, is getting ready to take her seat. Her husband, Curtis, a former Stanford basketball player, has been gone since January playing overseas, leaving her home with three small children, including her 9-month-old twins.

"T-minus three weeks," Borchardt said, referring to her husband's homecoming. "We have a calendar going at home and [our son] Finley tears a page off every day."

Dee Dee Zawaydeh, the program's longtime administrative assistant, kicks off the post-dinner program by cueing up Pink's "Get the Party Started" as she introduces "our Naismith Hall of Fame coach, Tara VanDerveer."

VanDerveer, grinning, jokes, "We'll talk about this tomorrow, Dee Dee."

VanDerveer takes her opening moments to rattle off the accomplishments of her team this season. A 79-game home winning streak that is now the nation's longest. Another conference title. A fifth straight trip to the Final Four.

"The pressure is on to be the first team to make it six," VanDerveer said. "But we'll talk about that later."

VanDerveer calls her players up class by class, pays tribute to each, thanks her staff and the team's support staff, a group of whom wave good-naturedly from the open doors that lead out to the patio. Even bus driver Don Van Zant gets a shout-out.

She calls her freshmen the "six-pack" and teases Ruef, a junior, after saying that Ruef is a physics major, and Ruef replies, "No, I'm not."

"She must have changed it on me," VanDerveer said and then brags that Ruef, who missed all but three games because of injury, earned straight A's last quarter.

The four seniors are introduced last, each getting an opportunity to speak.

Boothe steps up to the microphone and exclaims, "Wow, there are a lot of people here."

La Rocque thanks her parents for all of their support, joking that her father missed only two games in her career. "There goes the scholarship money," she said, getting a laugh from the room.

And then she pays tribute to her teammates. "My best friends ... " and she trails off, getting emotional.

Grace Mashore thanks the Stanford fans for supporting her, even though she saw limited playing time throughout her career.

And then Nneka speaks, and by the time she's done, she receives three standing ovations.

VanDerveer remembers Nneka's freshman year, when some Pac-10 coaches told the coach, "She's not as good as I thought."

"They aren't in the league anymore," VanDerveer said wryly.

And then Chiney comes up to present the Lizard Lung Award, granted annually to the player deemed most gullible/awkward.

"The freshmen don't even know about this award," said Chiney, last year's winner. "This player reads 'Harry Potter,' she quotes 'Harry Potter,' she thinks she is Harry Potter."

And up comes forward Bonnie Samuelson to accept her "honor."

"Yes, I am probably the most awkward person on the team," she said.

The evening wraps up with a 10-minute highlight video of the team's season, and VanDerveer takes the microphone again to challenge her returning players to be "caretakers of the legacy" of the program.

"Who will be caretakers? Who will step up?" VanDerveer asks. "Who will dedicate themselves to make great improvements? Who will get out on the track? Who will put up 1,000 shots?"

She's about to find out.

Conditioning starts again at 5:30 in the morning in the team's auxiliary gym.

"Who knows what Susan has in store for us?" Tinkle said. "Eating light tonight."