Testing their limits during exams week

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 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. -- The scoreboard above the floor at Maples Pavilion reads: Stanford 113, Finals (blank). One of the women's basketball staff members typed it in at the start of the week as a motivational nudge.

The 113 is a random number. But the margin of victory feels about right, as the players are trying to claim a big victory over their final exams.

Grace Mashore has arrived at the Starbucks near campus at 5 a.m. the past two mornings, getting in her study time with a nonfat latte.

"The guys who work there are making fun of me," said the senior reserve guard. "I have never had to study as much as I have this year."

Don Feria/isiphotos.com

During finals week, you catch sleep wherever and whenever you can. Mikaela Ruef is one player who avoids all-night studying, but she still found the leather couches at Maples Pavilion a perfect spot for a nap.

Junior Mikaela Ruef and sophomore Sara James are partial to Philz Coffee. There's more room to spread out, even if it's a little farther from campus.

"Definitely worth it," Ruef said.

The fourth-ranked Cardinal haven't played since a Dec. 4 win at Fresno State that pushed their record to 6-1. The two-week break, first for "dead week" and now for final exams, comes to an end on Saturday, when Stanford takes on Princeton as a warm-up act for Tuesday's home-court showdown against No. 6 Tennessee.

The practice schedule has been all over the map this week to accommodate the number of players taking final exams for the fall quarter: Monday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Tuesday, 9 to 11 a.m.; Wednesday, 1 to 4 p.m.

Players have come in and out of practice sessions all week. They will have Thursday off.

On Friday, practice is scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m., with nearly a dozen players taking their last exams in the testing block earlier in the day.

"We're in practice and someone has a review session, they leave," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said. "If people have to turn in papers during practice, they go and turn them in. It's the way it is."

Still, a coach can't help but be a coach.

"I'm ready for some games," said VanDerveer as her team began a Wednesday practice that seemed designed to get the blood pumping. Plenty of running, fast-break drills, a raised voice here and there.

VanDerveer traditionally uses the finals break to "experiment."

"I like to run some new stuff, put in some new things," she said. "It's hard because I know they are tired and they are staying up late. I know some of them feel a lot of pressure. Some of them have some pretty demanding majors.

"But we are over the hump now. Next time we practice [on Friday], it's over."

The next time her players take final exams, incidentally, it will be in the middle of the NCAA tournament at the end of the winter quarter. And there's no time off then.

Wednesday was Stanford's longest practice of the week, a full three hours. Everything else has been "quick pace, no fluff," VanDerveer said.

But VanDerveer is itching to get her team back on the floor. It's a better, healthier version of her team, after two weeks to tweak and rest and heal.

"I think we've made some great progress since our last game, but we'll see," the coach said. "People haven't seen us play at home in a while. I think we've come a long way in a short time."

Ruef has already assessed her performance in her Wednesday morning final in probabilistic analysis, a class in her major, management science and engineering.

"It was tough, really tough," Ruef said. "But I lot of people said it was tough. So I'm figuring I did about the average."

James said her finals experience as a sophomore has been tougher than freshman year. She was up until 3 a.m. studying on Wednesday morning. "Not good," she said.

Ruef, on the other hand, was in bed by 8 p.m. "I don't do that," Ruef said, referring to the wee-hours study sessions.

But Ruef's penchant for getting a good night's rest comes with a cost. She has to study for her last exam on Friday and then find the time to sell back her books at the bookstore and pack her belongings.

Don Feria/isiphotos.com

Ruef will probably see these study notes in her dreams.

Students have to be out of their dorm rooms for the holiday break by the end of the week. They won't be back until early January. The team will move into a hotel across the street from campus during the break.

"I don't have much time to pack," Ruef said.

Mashore has been a studying nomad all week -- as in, have backpack, will travel.

On Sunday, she started in the Meyer Library, but it was too crowded and she headed for Starbucks. Her usual spot in the law school library is closed to undergraduates during finals week.

Mashore ran into a few non-basketball friends at Starbucks.

"I hung around unproductively for about 20 minutes and then I got in my zone," Mashore said. "Christmas music on, art history books surrounding me."

On Monday, she headed to the Green Library, the first time she had been there in three years.

"I went straight to the basement and sat in a desk in the corner facing the wall," Mashore said.

On Tuesday, she went to practice, had a short visit with her dad (visiting from out of town) and then ended up at Jimmy V's (the athletic department café), where she met up with Ruef and a few players from the men's basketball team, and caught herself paying attention to the Tennessee-Rutgers game on the television. The distraction was too much.

So she headed to the locker room at Maples, a popular study destination for the players. There is space to work at the desk, which runs the length of the room, and Internet access with computer terminals. Not to mention the leather sofas.

"I have never been a big fan of using the locker room to study," Mashore said. "We spend a lot of hours in Maples, and when it's time to study, I like to be in a different atmosphere."

There she ran into freshmen Amber Orrange and Alex Green. She and Orrange are in the same American law class.

"When I realized that it was clear that Amber knew more about the cases than I did," Mashore said, "I got competitive and realized I had to really buckle down ... and back to the library I went."

After rolling to her room after 2 a.m., she was back at Starbucks for the early-morning pre-study.

"My next exam isn't until Friday, which means I can get a good night's sleep," Mashore said. "Thursday is the day off for us, so it will be an all-day library affair for me."

She is nearly at the finish line. The 15-page take-home test in art history is done. As is her final in American law. All that's left is psychology.

Nneka Ogwumike has a long way to go before she can be through her finals pain. As of Wednesday afternoon, she still had three of her four finals to go. Lest anyone think she's cruising through her senior year ... "Uh, no, not exactly," she said with a smile.

Junior Joslyn Tinkle walks down the hall toward the locker room, her arms raised in triumph.

"One more to go!" she said. "It will be so nice to be done."

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