Palo Alto, CA -- There's something about Stanford University that inspires the quality of being great.
Maybe it's the relationship to the Silicon Valley or perhaps the legacy of its founders... but when it comes to Stanford Cardinal women's basketball—there is no letdown.
Coming off of their eighth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance and 11th Pac 12 Tournament title, the Cards are eager for the '15-‘16 season. Their cooperation as teammates, friends and family shows with every aspect of their team and is likely to be a contributing factor to the success they anticipate having.
"They really do seem to have fun competing," head coach Tara VanDerveer said. "They go hard against each other, but then they're joking with each other off the court. It has a really good feel to it."
Erica McCall reunites with the team after a summer in Japan on the USA Olympic team where she was a key contributing player to their gold medal success. McCall will be a junior this season and head coach Tara VanDerveer commented on the noticeable improvement she's seen in "Bird" thus far.
"She had a big summer," VanDerveer said. "She just plays with a lot more confidence, she's very aggressive offensively; she has been playing hard and not hesitant—you can really see her confidence on the floor."
Alanna Smith also joins the team from overseas as a freshman from Australia, deeming her Stanford's first-ever international recruit. Smith was all smiles as she assured me how happy she is to be a Cardinal.
"The team has really gotten around me and welcomed me to make me feel at home," she said. "Everyone is so friendly, not only the team but everyone—my professors and the people in my dorm—it hasn't been hard to make friends."
Smith is a 6-3 freshman that capitalizes on her size at the four but also expands her game to the perimeter being able to shoot from the arc. VanDerveer explained that Alanna gives the team a whole new dimension with her size and 3-point shooting ability.
The talented forward merges with Shannon Coffee, Alexa Romano and Marta Sniezek to form Stanford's recruited class for the year.
"They're doing really well because our upperclassmen are being great mentors and ‘big sisters' to them," VanDerveer said. "It's amazing, they've stepped on the court and are playing like they've been here forever."
Expect big minutes from Marta Sniezek this year as Coach VanDerveer appreciates her strengths at the one.
"Marta is doing great...she's very heady, strong and quick," she said. "Just a great passer, great defender... She will play and play a lot for us."
To cap off what you can look for from the freshman class—Romano is a 5-10 guard with speed and Coffee will be a big body inside for the Cards as she stands 6-5 in the paint.
Stanford, the Pac 12 powerhouse, was picked to finish second in the preseason coaches' poll behind Oregon State, and the results snap their 15-year streak at the top of the list.
Tara commented on the results with a nonchalant tone that reflected the notion that their plans are much bigger than what numbers could show.
"I never really think about it. I know that when we play, we will be [the favorite]," VanDerveer said. "...I'm really excited about the leadership of our team; [they have] great enthusiasm. We don't really go by much of the preseason hype."
Kaylee Johnson explained where the results of the coaches' poll put the team's attitude as far as their expectations are concerned.
"An obvious goal for us is to win the Pac-12," she said. "I know that we weren't voted to, but personally I like that position... I wouldn't say we're the underdog, but I think if people are going to look at us like that then it could be an advantage for us."
Johnson led the team in rebounds last year with 9.6 RPG as a freshman and looks to be more of an offensive presence returning this year.
"I rebounded a lot last year and set a lot of screens which was helpful, but I'd like to contribute a little more—as I'm sure everyone else would—and just kind of reinforce myself as a player and a threat on the floor," she said. "We have a lot of speed and a lot of depth and if we can take advantage of each person and how each person can contribute, that will allow us to have an upper hand in a lot of different positions."
I couldn't help but notice the camaraderie between the five players that I spoke with; their energy seemed to shine through in the interview. It is no surprise that Smith felt welcomed to the team... I felt the same way as we all talked before getting started, shared pictures and laughed.
Not only did these athletes take time for an interview after so clearly giving it everything they had on the court, but they continued to interact with each other in a positive way and even compliment and reinforce each other's responses.
When asked about their friendship off the court translating to success on the court, junior Briana Roberson laughed and looked at her teammates as if the obvious answer was yes.
"I would definitely say so," she said. "We constantly push each other and are as vocal as we can be on the court. There are going to be moments when we're down, and the energy could be low, and that's on [myself and the other] upperclassmen to just really keep up the energy, keep talking and keep being vocal."
Leadership will spawn from last year's team leading scorer, Lili Thompson with 13.3 PPG (alongside graduated Amber Orrange, 13.3 PPG) as she enters her junior year and a new role that she says she's ready to take on.
"I've played a lot my entire career, but this is the first year the big brunt of the leadership will be on me," Thompson said.
This isn't seen as a task for her, however.
"It will be fun, though," she said. "We have a fun, awesome team—so that's not a burden at all. It's really just helping everybody to be the best we can be."
The combination of personalities and talent this team possesses will make for some exciting games and great basketball.
"This team is very upbeat [and we] get excited for each other," Thompson said. "You'll see a lot of quick, nice looking plays this season."
Maples Pavilion has a lot to offer for the fan base this year, not only from the players, but also from the beautiful new Daktronics four-corners LED display system hung in the center of the arena. It can replay videos, spans 15.5 feet wide, eight and a half feet high and adds a fresh new look.
"Yeah, I like it," VanDerveer said calmly. "I don't really look up there much, though."
Her focus lies on the court—entering the season as the third winningest coach in NCAA women's basketball history (47 victories shy of joining Pat Summitt as the only coaches with 1,000 career wins)—she knows which way the ball is rolling, and I doubt ever questions how many timeouts she has left.
"...No matter what happens, our team is just going to stick together and battle. I like the battle, the ‘warrior' mentality," VanDerveer said. "We're very excited about how things are going. We just want to keep it going, keep everyone healthy and keep everyone working hard."