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Kayla Pedersen: The Calming Force of Stanford’s "Three-Headed Monster"

There might be no better example of what makes Stanford University so successful than their response to a blown defensive assignment on the University of Washington's first scoring possession last Friday.

On Washington's first successful possession in their 58-36 loss to Stanford, guard Sami Whitcomb floated a pass to center Regina Rogers who was being fronted by All-America center Jayne Appel.

In my notes, I wrote "beat" to signify Washington had beat Appel on that play. Getting beat once was just about enough for Stanford coach Tara Vanderveer.

The very next play -- and for pretty much every play for the rest of the game -- if a Washington perimeter player even  thought about looking in the direction of the post, a Stanford defender rotated over to take away the lob pass. It was immediately evident that Appel had not been "beat" on the first play of the game, but someone had a defensive lapse.

When Vanderveer and Stanford center Jayne Appel were asked about the play after the game, they quickly responded.

"First play of the game?" asked Vanderveer when asked about the play, just to clarify before calling out one of her star players.

"HELLOOOO NNEKA?!?"

"Uhhhh," said Appel. "We kinda talked about it before. We kinda said it was a good thing because they kept trying to make that pass the rest of the game. And I think we just kinda got caught sleeping on the backside a little bit because I was supposed to be in front and there was supposed to be someone else there."

"I think Jayne did fine," Vanderveer interjected as Appel chuckled and left her justification incomplete. "Nneka really- she knew right away she wasn't in position to make the play and she said that right away and she said that right away - she said, ‘My bad' to Jayne. And I'm yelling at her and the whole bench was yelling at her. But I think they did keep trying to make that pass and it accounted for maybe at least 3 or 4 or 5 turnovers."

Sound like a hostile work environment? Perhaps.

But that play -- as well as the post-game reaction -- speaks volumes about what makes Stanford such a successful program: it's a team that not only plays with a collective sense of accountability for even seemingly minor details of the game, but also seeks constant improvement, even in the heat of a game.

"What I'm excited about is that our team is really buying in to improving," said Vanderveer in a video on Stanford's website, previewing their game tonight against the University of Oregon. "They're really looking at ok: so we have some issues, maybe turnovers, so we're working at cutting out our turnovers. If we didn't rebound one game, we come out and we focus on that."

Of course every team talks about those things in the abstract, but Stanford really lives out the words, as evidenced by the rapid defensive adjustment against Washington. When you think about what separates Stanford from the pack, that commitment to improvement seems to be a constant that has allowed them to be dominant for decades.

"Just doing the little extra things will put you over the top," said Vanderveer in the video, connecting what separates a gold from a silver medal in Olympic downhill skiing to basketball in a video posted on Stanford's website. "A free throw here or one less turnover, kinda the attention to detail that those Olympians have and our team has to have."

Like most successful teams, it's doing the little things that people often don't give them credit for that allows them to not only be good, but dominant. Games like their low scoring road win against Washington last week embody both the confidence and precise attention to detail that makes this team tick.

"Our team is playing with a lot of confidence," said Vanderveer, when asked how they've progressed since their game against UConn. "Sometimes I think our team - when you play Tennessee and UConn - I don't think our team gets credit for a game like this where we had to battle."

When imagining Stanford as a team whose success is predicated not merely on overwhelming opponents with talent but on doing the little things that people don't readily give them credit for, one player stands out as embodying the essence of what makes this team tick: forward Kayla Pedersen.

After Washington's loss to Stanford, coach Tia Jackson described Stanford as a three-headed monster.

"Those big three were huge," said Jackson, referring to Appel, Nneka Ogwumike and Kayla Pedersen. "We have this terminology of the three headed monster - the three of them together were one of the monsters. Their transition defense was another one. And their rebounding was the other part of their three headed monster. So we knew those three players were key. I think I said it at the beginning of the game to our radio guy, Steve Sandmeyer that 72% of their rebounding is done by those three. 60% of their point production is by those three. So we knew that going in and we had to find a way to limit that."

If we simultaneously take Jackson's words literally and use our imaginations, the beast that she describes is actually more like a 5 headed monster with three necks, a beast perhaps even more dangerous and frightening than the two-headed monstrosity in the movie "Willow", the scariest multi-headed creature that I seem to recall from childhood.

Whatever attributes one might associate with such a monster are probably representative of the way in which some women's basketball fans imagine a Stanford program that has dominated both its conference and the national landscape for decades now - a physically imposing, potent, immovable force in the Pac-10.

However, Stanford is not a team that merely seeks to overwhelm their opponents with brute strength, overwhelming athleticism, or intimidating size, despite the fact that all of those things feel present in the game. Stanford is a team that slowly picks apart their opponents with disciplined, efficient, and gritty basketball. There's no wasted motion and every bad decision is not only regrettable, but immediately corrected.

Yes, Stanford is supremely talented and absolutely huge, replacing one 6'3" or 6'4" player with another. But what's most impressive about Stanford is that they are among the most disciplined teams in the nation in addition to being one of the most talented. Perhaps the scariest thing about Stanford is that part of its dominance is derived from its reflectivity and commitment to the details that lead to success.

As such, C&R's much simpler description of Stanford's big three as "the trees" is probably better, especially if we stay in fantasy land and think about the Ents from Lord of the Rings -- deliberate, methodical, and patient, but in not being hasty, avoiding tactical errors (but of course that cost them a loss against a ruthless opponent who strove for perfection by building the largest, most powerful army in the land).

When thinking about a player whose style best represents the way Stanford plays as a team, two players immediately jump to mind after watching them play against Washington - Pedersen and point guard Jeanette Pohlen, starters who serve as complementary pieces to the team's more dominant stars.

How Pedersen embodies what Stanford is about

It's almost hard to know which is the better embodiment of Stanford's style this year: on the one hand, Pohlen is a point guard who plays a patient, decisive game directing the offense almost never breaking the three point line except on fast breaks. On the other hand, you have Pedersen, sometimes an after thought in the offense who seems to be in just the right place to keep the court properly balanced for someone else to do so. She is a player so focused on doing the little things and complementing her star teammates that if you almost forget that there's nothing she can't do.

However, it's not that Pedersen is a "no stats all-star" - a glue player that holds the team together without making a dent in the boxscore. In fact, she probably does something more remarkable - she brings both the intangibles and the ability to make tangible contributions to the stat sheet.

"Usually she does, but not today," said Vanderveer in response to her modest 8 point, 8 rebound performance against Washington. "But I don't know - Jayne plays with Kayla: what does Kayla do for you?"

"Steady," replied Appel. "She's the person that you can rely on to come out and have the most calm in a good way composure out on the court. She's just steady - defense, offense. You can rely on her - maybe that's one of the best qualities she has as a teammate."

"She's dependable," added Vanderveer. "She's an intelligent player. She plays the 4 and the 3 -- two really different positions - and she does them both really well."

That fusion of disciplined, intelligent, steady, and selfless play combined with versatility that allow her to make tangible contributions in the box score are what make her so dangerous. She can bring the ball up the court against a press, run the offense, shoot from the perimeter, and rebound. At 6'4", she's almost more dangerous on the perimeter than she is in the post, as noted by Oregon State coach Lavonda Wagner after her first meeting with Stanford this season.

Stanford Too Strong Down The Stretch - Building The Dam
"Pedersen had a really good night," Oregon St. coach Lavonda Wagner noted. "Her size on the perimeter gave us a lot of trouble."

Against Washington, Pedersen used her size on the perimeter defend smaller guard Sami Whitcomb, the Huskies' leading scorer. Despite foul trouble, she ended up with a blocked shot and was at least partially responsible for Whitcomb's 3-12 shooting performance.

"Kayla came out and was on Sami Whitcomb who's a terrific player but we weren't gonna let her loose for three," said Vanderveer.

In an ESPN world, Pedersen might strike casual basketball fans as "boring", often smartly making the "right" play instead of the big play. On the other hand, people who appreciate the finer aspects of the game will appreciate her sense of spacing, ball movement, and her uncanny ability to give the team almost exactly what it needs at any given moment. Perhaps it is that about her that seems to so strongly represent what Stanford is all about as a program.

"We're not like a flashy, pressing, trapping [team] - although I think that we could do that a little bit," said Vanderveer. "But we're just more kinda a grit, grind it out, there playing position defense."

It's a style of play that a talented team like Stanford rarely gets attention for and yet in the thick of conference play, it's a large part of the reason the team remains successful year in and year out. Given their style of play -- a disciplined, gritty team that wins by patiently out-executing their opponents -- perhaps it's no surprise that it was Pedersen who called her team out after a sub-par performance against Oregon State, refocusing them on the standards they've set for themselves.

No. 2 Stanford downs Oregon State 63-47 - College Women's Basketball - Rivals.com
Stanford’s Kayla Pedersen didn’t mean any disrespect to Oregon State when she said the second-ranked Cardinal need to win more convincingly. Pedersen scored 23 points and Stanford bided its time until finally pulling away from Oregon State in the second half for a 63-47 victory Thursday night.

"We can do a lot better," Pedersen said. "I think our standards need to be a lot higher if we want to be a national championship team."

It would be wrong to say that Pedersen is the leader of this team above and beyond the other two trees, but when thinking about the essence of Stanford basketball, there may be no better embodiment on this team than Kayla Pedersen.

Transition Points:

  • Vanderveer on Appel: "I yell at her because she's too unselfish - she loves to pass and I'm just telling her to score when she's one on one."
  • Vanderveer on senior Ros Gold-Onwude: "Kristi Kingma - Ros guarded her. And I don't think there's any defender in this Pac-10 better than Ros...She was on Ashley Corral last week and she had one point when Ros went out of the game. She had Dorexi Campbell...She takes real pride in her defense and then other people because Ros gets a lot of positive reinforcement for that, other people say, ‘Hey, I can do it too.'"
  • Vanderveer on team's defense: "My assistant coaches Bobbi Kelsey and Kay Paye do a great job of scouting. And our team really prides itself on listening to the scouting report and really knowing what teams are going to do and taking away people's favorite moves."
  • After their first meeting against Oregon, Ducks point guard Nia Jackson said that if they played like they did against Stanford, they'd be better.

    UO women's basketball: No. 2 Stanford 100, Oregon 80 | The Ducks Beat - OregonLive.com
    "We're making good strides," Jackson said. "We know we can play. If we were to play like that every game, we would have a way better record than we do right now."

    Vanderveer echoed that sentiment after the Washington game, noting that they tend to bring out the best in teams in the process of flattening them.

    "Every game in our league we have the big bullseye on and we get everyone's ‘A' game," said Vanderveer. "And sometimes when I watch teams play I think if they would've played like this every game...they would've beaten these other teams."

  • I would be remiss if I did not mention the player C&R have called the baby tree, Joslyn Tinkle. It seems unfair to have a 6'4" freshman that can come off the bench and record 12 points and 10 rebounds in 17 minutes as she did against Washington State University. It's just not fair.
  • In a video interview, Kayla Pedersen said that she looked up to both NBA and WNBA players growing up...which of course made me think about comparisons to her male counterparts. 

    So how about this one: Mike Dunleavy, Jr. I know this may be hard to swallow for Bay Area basketball fans - fatal, in fact - but if you ignore the ridiculous expectations placed upon him when he was drafted #3 by our beloved Golden State Warriors, his game at Duke was very similar: something of a do-everything third wheel power forward who just did whatever it took to help his powerhouse program win.

  • Personal note: Jayne Appel is huge. Like real huge. She walked by me in the press conference and she's huge enough to make me say, "like". Like I've stood next to Regina Rogers - who is not small -- and she doesn't strike me as quite as imposing as Appel. Appel is just, like, huge.
  • For the record, the monster in Willow was called the Ebersisk (Siskel...Ebert...get it? Funny!), a name befitting such an absurd monstrosity.Val Kilmer did manage to slay this beast...so maybe he can provide some insight...ok, this is going too far...