Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - November 12, 2010

Stanford renews its quest for an NCAA title

by Rick Eymer

Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen came to Stanford as two of the top women's basketball prospects in the country. Pedersen was rated the 15th best prospect overall by one publication.

Even with those credentials, the two seniors have exceeded expectations. They are All-American candidates because they never stopped learning, never stopped looking for ways to improve.

With fellow seniors Melanie Murphy (fifth-year), Hannah Donaghe and Ashley Cimino, they have been to the promised land of the NCAA Final Four the past three years and reached the championship game twice.

Their reputations among Cardinal elite cemented, there's only one thing left to accomplish and that's bringing a national championship to Stanford for the first time in 19 years.

"We have a lot of motivation," Pedersen said. "Right after we lost (the NCAA title game to Connecticut) we said 'OK, next year we get another shot at the title.'"

Stanford begins the journey Sunday with a 2 p.m. home game against Rutgers, the first of eight nonconference games (out of 11) against teams that reached the NCAA tournament last year.

The third-ranked Cardinal (18-0, 36-2 last year) scheduled four of last year's Elite Eight teams, three of which are ranked among the top five in the current preseason poll.

"Our preseason is one of the toughest in the nation," Pedersen said. "We play high-caliber teams all the time, so it will be fun again."

Stanford was picked to win its 11th consecutive Pac-10 title, though even the pursuit of that goal appears to hold challenges in the form of 16th-ranked UCLA, California, USC and Arizona State — all among teams receiving votes in the national polls.

The Cardinal has an awesome resume, enough to match any team in the country at any position. There are eight former state Gatorade Players of the Year, including two national Gatorade Players of the Year on board.

Pedersen, Pohlen and junior Nnemkadi Ogwumike are returning all-Pac-10 players. Ogwumike, also a returning All-American, was the conference Player of the Year in 2010.

Add to the mix redshirt 6-foot-5 sophomore Sarah Boothe, 6-4 sophomore Josyln Tinkle and the reigning National High School Player of the Year in 6-3 Chiney Ogwumike, and its no wonder Stanford dreams large despite the loss of All-American Jayne Appel and defensive standout Roz Gold-Onwude.

The whole package is led by a three-time national Coach of the Year, and an assistant (Amy Tucker) who shared a National Coach of the Year award.

"This might be the most versatile team I've ever had," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said. "It's headlined by Kayla's versatility. She can play any position on the floor. I'm excited about being back in the conversation for a national championship."

The younger Ogwumike was the prize of last year's recruiting class and it's easy to see why. In the first exhibition game of the season, Chiney had a double-double by halftime while older sister Nnemkadi was nursing a sore foot.

The dynamics between the sisters has been the source of awe-inspiring athletic grace and entertaining soap opera moments.

"We find ourselves in the middle of them sometimes," Pedersen said. "Neka is very direct with Chiney. It is entertaining."

"I forget they're sisters; they are really different," VanDerveer said. "Chiney is not the jumper Neka is but she does stuff that are instinctive."

Nnemkadi said she's thrilled to be playing with her sister again.

"I want to share this experience with her," the elder Ogwumike said. "I kind of forgot how it is to play with her. I giver her some direction and she takes it well. But she also looks to Kayla for answers."

Junior guards Grace Mashore and Lindy La Rocque and sophomore Mikaela Ruef provide experience off the bench, while Chiney Ogwumike is joined by fellow freshmen Toni Kokenis and Sara James to give the Cardinal one of the country's top-rated recruiting classes.

"We're all in it together," Pedersen said. "It seems like more players can be used in different positions."

By the way, those eight former Gatorade players are Ruef, both Ogwumike's, Pedersen, Pohlen, Cimino, Boothe and Tinkle.

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