Working through injury and growing pains

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.

STANFORD, Calif. -- Tara VanDerveer stands at the scorer's table in the moments before Wednesday night's nonconference game against UC Davis and surveys the state of her Cardinal team five games and one month into the season.

What does she see? The team warming up looks smaller than it did a few weeks earlier, because of a dwindling number of experienced players.

Senior guard Lindy La Rocque is wearing warm-ups, nursing a foot injury that thankfully isn't a stress fracture. La Rocque's right foot has been "bothering" her of late, enough to take her off the court for now, though X-rays were negative.

Junior forward Mikaela Ruef continues to battle a sore right quadriceps and plantar fasciitis in her left foot, and hasn't played since before the team traveled to Connecticut prior to Thanksgiving. Then there's freshman Alex Green, sitting at the end of the bench holding crutches, sidelined for the season after having surgery to repair her ruptured left Achilles tendon on Tuesday.

The injuries have meant playing time for other freshmen, and VanDerveer has seen that group progress in fits and starts. Good one game, tentative the next. It's a big adjustment for freshmen to play, much less start, for the Cardinal.

No one has been given a more substantial opportunity to this point than Taylor Greenfield, the 6-foot-3 forward from Iowa who has been in the starting lineup since the first day of the season.

Sports information director Aaron Juarez turned Greenfield into a trivia question a couple of weeks ago, asking the names of the eight other Stanford players other than Greenfield since 2000 started the first game of their true freshman season on The Farm.

The answer: Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Pedersen, Candice Wiggins, Nicole Powell, Susan Borchardt, Kristen Newlin, Sebnem Kimyacioglu and Jillian Harmon.

And now Greenfield.

She said she's viewing her season so far as something of a topographical map.

"It's smooth and then there is a bump," Greenfield said.

What qualifies as a bump?

"A bad practice, a tough test in a class," she said. "I'm not feeling a lot of pressure because I'm a starter; I just want to do well for the people I'm playing with.

Don Feria/isiphotos.com

Greenfield, with teammates during practice at Arrillaga Gymnasium, has reason to smile: She's starting as a true freshman.

"I look at it that I have the privilege to start on this team and I have to prove that I'm worthy. I have been given an opportunity and I have to make the most out of it."

VanDerveer isn't shying away from working in the younger players, and on this night, against an overmatched and undersized UC Davis team, the learning opportunities are plentiful.

But for the players, learning to handle the stress and excitement of starting on a top college team takes time and patience.

Asked whether she is feeling less overwhelmed six games into the season, Greenfield rolled her eyes and said with a smile, "No. Definitely a no."

When Stanford was healthier at the beginning of the season, Greenfield wasn't anybody's most likely pick to be the first freshman to start. Most assumed it would be one of the guards -- Amber Orrange or Jasmine Camp -- filling the team's need for speed in the backcourt and making the most immediate impact.

Greenfield isn't yet lighting up the scoreboard or changing games. But she is the piece of the puzzle that fits right now at the 3, a position where VanDerveer is looking to fill the incredibly big shoes of Pedersen, who owned the position for the past two years as one of the most versatile small forwards in the country.

VanDerveer has already called Greenfield a potential "glue" player, like Harmon when she was here. Greenfield is big on the wing, a solid ball-handler, passes well (she played point guard for her AAU team in Iowa) and has proven she can hit shots when she's willing to take them.

She ranked fourth on the team in minutes played before Wednesday night's game, but had taken just nine shots in five games, scoring a total of 22 points. Her most productive offensive game had been the season opener at Texas, when she scored nine points.

Wednesday night, she took her spot on the floor against Davis, defending and roaming around the wing. She took her first 3-point attempt four minutes into the game -- just long.

Two minutes later, she made a stellar pass inside the paint to Nneka Ogwumike for an assist.

"Nice, Tay, nice!," assistant coach Trina Patterson shouted.

And she followed up by tipping a high rebound to Orrange after a missed free throw attempt.

"Work, Taylor. Work, Taylor," VanDerveer reminded Greenfield when the Cardinal were on defense.

A second 3-point attempt eight minutes in was off the mark and Greenfield came out of the game.

She did not return in the half. Instead, VanDerveer underscored how much still remains to be settled on her roster -- and at that spot on the floor.

Enter sophomore Sara James, looking for more playing time after seeing limited minutes a year ago. She immediately hit two 3-pointers to push Stanford into the lead.

Freshman Erica Payne made a brief appearance and was quickly back on the bench. Then came freshman Bonnie Samuelson, averaging just 5.8 minutes per game coming in. Samuelson played five minutes in the first half against Davis, and was 3-for-4 from beyond the 3-point arc.

Greenfield was back on the floor as the second half began. Three minutes in, she made a cross-court pass from the wing that was deflected and nearly stolen.

"Taylor!" VanDerveer said, getting her attention. "Shoot the ball from out there."

Samuelson checked back into the game and came out successfully firing 3's.

Greenfield returned with five minutes to go, also looking to score. She took two shots down the stretch, connecting on a 3-pointer from the wing with 1:16 to go.

Stanford went on to win with ease, dispatching Davis -- the team it defeated in the opening round of last year's NCAA tournament -- by a score of 93-44. The Cardinal ran their home-court winning streak to 66 games.

Greenfield finished 1-for-4 from the floor with two rebounds in 18 minutes -- her second-shortest playing time since the season began.

"Taylor is doing a great job getting the ball inside," VanDerveer said after the game, leaning against the wall in the hallway outside the team's media room, the final box score in her hand. "Her assist-to-turnover ratio is great. She's capable of hitting shots. She does everything well."

But VanDerveer's view of the 3 spot is that it might be best for now to stick with a collaboration.

"Bonnie shoots really well. Erica is a good defender. We could use Jos [Tinkle] at the 3 if we need size. If Mikaela was healthy, she'd definitely be in that mix," VanDerveer said.

The coach wouldn't mind if Greenfield were more assertive offensively. Greenfield nods knowingly at this a few minutes later.

"I've been told that," Greenfield said. "When I play with Nneka and Chiney, all I want to do is pass them the ball. I want to make them look good. I've been a scorer all my life, so it seems weird not to be that now. But everything in my mind has been pass first. And Tara says I need to change that."

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