Amber Orrange works to find her voice
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 final game of the season in March or, perhaps, into April.
STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford started the season with three promising freshman guards. After a month of practice and two months of play, Amber Orrange is the last woman standing.
Point guard Orrange stands during half-court screening drills at Stanford's practice, a ball tucked under her arm as she takes instruction from assistant coach Kate Paye. On the floor next to the court are her rookie compatriots -- Alex Green and Jasmine Camp -- sitting on mats doing upper-body work. Each of them lifts the heavy ball and then works the handlebars on the stationary bike. They carefully rest their injured legs on a foot stool, out of the way of the spinning pedals.
Green and Camp came to campus with Orrange last summer. Now both of them are out for the season due to injuries. The game-changing class of quick, athletic backcourt players that was supposed to give Tara VanDerveer's program a new look has swiftly been reduced by two-thirds -- at least for the rest of 2011-12.
Green is recovering from November surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon sustained in practice in the hours before the team left on its pre-Thanksgiving trip to play Connecticut. After several weeks of making her way around on crutches with no weight on her injured foot, Green came back from winter break in a walking boot. She's now holding her crutches but not using them.
Camp, however, is bound to her crutches. She is sporting a new red cast, signed by her teammates, waiting for her early January surgery date to repair a stress fracture to the navicular bone in her left foot.
And now, in a sense, Orrange is going it alone as the season rolls into a new phase.
"It's disappointing," Orrange said simply.
The people who were in her shoes, understanding her struggles to learn the offense and grasp the speed of the college game, are now in a different place. Their seasons are over, and Orrange is still finding her way as a freshman.
"There probably was less pressure on me with them [healthy], but I'm not going to shy away from pressure," Orrange said. "This is an opportunity for me to step up."
That opportunity has arrived in concert with the start of the conference schedule.
The No. 4-ranked Cardinal are back at practice this week after the break. The players went home to their families, taking a respite from their 9-1 start to the season. They are embarking on their next important chapter -- the Pac-12 season.
The players checked back into the Sheraton Palo Alto. This time the football team is off at the Fiesta Bowl, and each player had her own room -- and Internet access.
"Big king-size bed," Chiney Ogwumike said. "And I'm on the bottom floor near the lobby, so my Internet is really fast."
But it was a short stay. On Wednesday, the team boarded a flight to Los Angeles for the opening games of the Pac-12 schedule against USC and UCLA. Stanford picked up a 61-53 win over USC on Thursday night to extend its record to 10-1.
The team will return Saturday after playing the Bruins, take Sunday off and watch Monday's Fiesta Bowl between the Cardinal and Oklahoma State as a team.
The spotlight may get a bit brighter on Orrange, as she will be asked to step up her game. She was the highest-rated recruit in Stanford's six-player freshman class, carrying McDonald's All-American pedigree and the résumé of leading Westbury Christian in Houston to three state titles.
Her accomplishments speak louder than she does, as she might be one of the more introverted players to come through the program in a while.
"Amber is quiet," said Stanford assistant and former point guard Paye. "That's the first thing everybody says."
Paye and the coaching staff have known Orrange since she attended Stanford summer camp as a high school player, so her quiet personality was no surprise.
Orrange is obviously shy, a soft speaker. She and Green have struck up a close friendship and often keep to themselves, talking mostly to each other.
"Kate is talking to me about being a leader, [being] more vocal," Orrange said. "It's hard to tell upperclassmen what to do."
Senior Nneka Ogwumike, a fellow Houston native, has encouraged Orrange to become more vocal -- even to her elders.
"I tell her that I will be wherever she tells me to be," Ogwumike said. "I think it's the same as it is with anybody, she just needs more confidence."
VanDerveer said Orrange's shyness is holding her back on the floor.
"It's hard when you are a point guard," VanDerveer said. "She has to be vocal out there. But she's a freshman. … She has some really good skills, but in order to help us, she's going to have to play better defense and be more aggressive.
"She has to make more happen. And she needs to work on her shot, which she's doing. But there are going to be more minutes for her."
Orrange has had a deliberate integration into the Stanford lineup, with her minutes limited as she learns the ropes. She's playing off the bench, behind sophomore point guard Toni Kokenis and steady senior Lindy La Rocque, averaging 13.4 minutes and 2.8 points a game.
On Thursday against USC in the Pac-12 opener, Orrange played just four minutes and took one shot, all in the first half, as VanDerveer went with a veteran lineup against an experienced Women of Troy squad. But there will likely be valuable minutes to be had against the Cardinal's more overmatched Pac-12 opponents.
She ranks second on the team with 25 assists and 10 steals. She has a quick move to the basket and has done a good job at one of the most important jobs for a Cardinal backcourt player -- getting the ball inside to the bigs.
VanDerveer has emphasized that Orrange improve her ballhandling skills with her right hand -- she is a lefty -- by putting plastic blinders on her and having her dribble through cones before the start of practice.
"I think she's an untapped reservoir," Paye said. "She wants to do great things, and she wants to be a great player. She's taking it all in."
Paye acknowledged that a point guard has to speak up on the floor. It's something Orrange needs to work on, the same way she's working on that right hand.
"But Toni [Kokenis] is going through the same thing; it's something she's working on as well," Paye said. "Immediately after the Tennessee game, we were very happy with the way our team played. We got a lot of contributions.
"Tara was talking to the team and she said, 'Heck, I even heard Amber yell in that game.' … As she gets more confidence and more experience, her play will speak for her. She'll say what she needs to say, but her play will speak for her."