This is why they came to Stanford
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 week 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.
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Freshman forward Erica Payne downloaded a countdown app for her phone about a month and half ago, and she set it for zero hour on Nov. 21 at 4 p.m., California time.
"It's ticking off right now," Payne said.
Ticking off to the moment the No. 5-ranked Cardinal tip off against No. 4 Connecticut at the XL Center in Hartford.
"The reason why we are playing Connecticut now is for us to get better and for us to learn," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said to her team as it finished up its morning film session in a hotel ballroom in Hartford on Sunday, the day before one of the biggest nonconference games on the national schedule.
Then VanDerveer told her team about how this series started four years ago with a tournament game in the Virgin Islands.
"You guys were in high school then, but it was the start of something special for us," VanDerveer said.
That 66-54 loss to the Huskies on Nov. 22, 2007, provided VanDerveer a new standard for how she wanted her team to play and ultimately ignited a run of four straight trips to the Final Four. It also began a great new women's basketball rivalry.
Monday's game is the continuation of a home-and-home series, which both teams are looking to extend.
Stanford clearly views this game as an early measuring stick for a team full of young players who will likely be a little wide-eyed when they take the floor at the XL Center on Monday evening.
In a sad turn, one of those young players will be left behind. Guard Alex Green, who had been battling her way into playing time, getting a late start after rehabbing a knee injury, ruptured her Achilles tendon in practice Friday and did not make the trip.
Fellow freshman Bonnie Samuelson gave Green a hug of encouragement before she boarded the bus headed for the airport. Green watched her team pull out of the parking lot with her left foot in a stabilizing boot.
"It's really sad; it's depressing," VanDerveer said. "She's such an athlete. It's hard."
The Cardinal made the trip east all day Saturday and, after getting delayed in Minneapolis where their plane needed to be de-iced on the tarmac, rolled into their hotel in downtown Hartford well after midnight.
They were just in time to catch the end of the Big Game against Cal back home in Palo Alto.
"Saw the second half of the last quarter," sophomore guard Toni Kokenis said. Turns out that was the best part, at least from the Stanford perspective; the Cardinal pulled out a 31-28 win.
The itinerary for the first day of a weeklong road trip -- Stanford will play at Xavier on Friday -- called for the opportunity to sleep in Sunday. VanDerveer generally schedules a late breakfast on the first morning of an East Coast trip, a chance for the players to acclimate to a new time zone without an early wake-up call.
Junior forward Mikaela Ruef didn't sleep in. She is, by nature, an early riser, and now the leader of the road-trip "Coffee Club," in which she and a few teammates venture out of the team hotel and look for coffee. Her usual partners, Sarah Boothe and Sara James, have taken a pass this morning, so Ruef and sports information director Aaron Juarez head out.
They find a Dunkin' Donuts across the street from the hotel, but at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, it's closed. They find an open coffee shop around the corner and spy another Dunkin' Donuts across the street.
"I figured if one was closed they'd all be closed," Ruef said.
But this one was open, so Ruef ventures over for a second cup of coffee, which is apparently no big deal.
"I usually drink a whole pot in the morning," Ruef said.
It's a quiet 11 a.m. start to breakfast in the hotel ballroom, tucked on the back end of the second floor.
There's the clinking of plates and utensils, a few murmurs of conversation -- then one loud crash.
"Way to go, Nneka!" senior Lindy La Rocque said.
And then laughter.
Following morning workouts, associate head coach Amy Tucker and strength coach Susan Borchardt roll in well after the crowd. Borchardt went for a run around downtown Hartford, as did assistant Kate Paye.
For the players, this is going to be a working breakfast. Just before noon, they abandon the large square breakfast table and move across the room to the rows of chairs set up in front of a small screen. Borchardt has gone out to find hotel staff to track down either a white board or an easel.
And the film session begins. Players adjust their chairs so they can see better as VanDerveer runs through Connecticut's offensive sets, defensive tendencies and a few out-of-bounds plays.
"Does everyone see this play?" VanDerveer asked. "Could you diagram it?"
Paye talks to the players about helping on defense and making switches when necessary.
"You guys have to talk to each other," Paye said.
Working with a laser pointer, VanDerveer asks her quiet players, scouting reports in hand, if they are following, and they nod. She asks for questions, and at this point, there are none.
About halfway through, VanDerveer calls for a stretch break. Players grab some water, a few more pieces of fruit and head back to their chairs.
"This is like tournament prep," the coach said.
The Cardinal players watch video edits of Connecticut's first two games against Assumption and Holy Cross. They also watch a few highlights of their game against Connecticut from last Dec. 30.
"I like watching our game," VanDerveer said.
This will not be like last year's game between these two powerhouse programs. It just can't be.
On Dec. 30, Stanford hosted Connecticut in a game that had national buzz. Connecticut brought its NCAA-record 90-game win streak to Maples Pavilion to face a Cardinal team rife with experience and national-championship aspirations.
Led by Jeanette Pohlen's 31-point night, and in front of the loudest home crowd anyone at Stanford could remember, the Cardinal ended the streak, winning 71-59.
The buzz isn't quite as loud this year. This isn't a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. That happened Sunday when Baylor took on Notre Dame.
There's no historic winning streak on the line.
And the deaths of Oklahoma State coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna in a plane crash Thursday have cast a pall over the weekend.
But this is a high-profile game between two of the college game's best-known brand names. And the players know what it means.
Which is why Payne has literally been counting down the hours.
Which is why the team is energetic and focused when it heads to practice at Saint Joseph College, a small Division III Catholic women's college in West Hartford.
They are practicing in the O'Connell Sports Complex, a small old-school gym with banners hanging from the brick walls and an elevated running track. The pounding sound of a couple of runners can be heard in the quiet moments during the team's conditioning workout.
That was the only part of the two-hour practice that was quiet; the team was loud and energetic throughout, the entire session a cacophony of whistles and exhortations and instructions.
Saint Joseph athletic director Bill Cardarelli sticks around to take some notes on how the Cardinal run their practices. A few folks using the facilities on a Sunday afternoon peek in the window to watch.
The non-coaching staff members are keeping track of the day's biggest games -- Baylor's win over Notre Dame and Virginia's upset win over Tennessee -- on their laptops while monitoring practice.
Freshman Jasmine Camp said this preparation hasn't seemed any different than any other game the Cardinal have played so far.
"This is just like any other game," Camp said. "A name on a jersey is just that."
Yet these are the kinds of games Camp came to Stanford to play, right?
"Of course," she said with a smile.
As the team gathered at center court at the end of practice, VanDerveer reminded the players about getting rest, getting treatment if they need it, and she told them about the Virginia upset over the Lady Vols. A few players whooped.
"Anything can happen," VanDerveer said. "It's all about playing well."
Then Chiney Ogwumike shared a quote with her teammates: "The competitor to be feared the most doesn't worry about others at all, but goes about making themselves better all the time."
"I believe that it's not about who you play, but how you play against them," Ogwumike said after practice. "The only thing that matters is whether we're making ourselves better."