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Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - November 8, 2013

Any Stanford success starts with Ogwumike

How far the Cardinal advances in NCAA tournament will depend upon the improvement of her teammates

by Rick Eymer

Chiney Ogwumike faces her final season at Stanford with as much excitement and passion as she brought when she first arrived.

There's no question Ogwumike is one of the top women's basketball players in the nation, if not the best one. She averaged a double-double last year, was named a first team All-American, named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and conference player of the year.

None of that matters to Ogwumike. What matters is helping the Cardinal win, as in making a championship run.

"I want to be a better leader for my team," Ogwumike said. "I love to compete and whatever that brings is what I'll do, whether it's becoming a better passer or perimeter player. I'm down for any challenge."

Stanford faces quite a challenge in its opening weekend. The third-ranked Cardinal (33-3 last year) travels to Boston College for a game Saturday before moving on to meet defending national champion and top-ranked Connecticut on Monday.

"We're just jumping into the deep end of the pool," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who is six wins away from 900 for her career. "Let's find what we need to work on right off the bat."

The Cardinal returns four starters from the team that was upset by Georgia in the third round of last year's NCAA tournament. In addition to Ogwumike, seniors Sara James and Mikaela Ruef, and junior Amber Orrange also return.

James has missed practice due to a calf injury but is "doing fine," according to VanDerveer. Redshirt sophomore Alex Green has replaced her in the starting lineup for the time being.

Juniors Bonnie Samuelson and Taylor Greenfield, each of whom have been starters in the past, also have been banged up, limiting their playing time. The 6-foot-3 Samuelson, who is joined by her little sister, 6-0 Karlie, this year, is back practicing. Greenfield has a stress reaction and likely will miss a few more weeks.

Junior forward Erica Payne also has missed action following knee surgery, but is expected to join a rotation with Ogwumike and Ruef.

"She's working hard and learning from both Chiney and Mikaela," VanDerveer said. "They are showing her the way."

Freshman 6-3 foward Kailee Johnson, a McDonald's All-American and Oregon's 6A Player of the Year, has been thrown into the starting lineup because of the various aches and pains. She did not have a backup for most of training camp.

Sophomores Tess Picknell and Jasmine Camp are also in the mix, giving Stanford plenty of depth.

In addition to Samuelson, a WBCA All-American, and Johnson, Erica McCall, 5-7 Lili Thompson and 5-7 Briana Roberson came in as one of the top freshman classes in the nation.

McCall is a veteran of the United States national youth teams, Thompson received All-American honorable mention and Roberson is a two-time CIF Southern Section selection.

"I tell them to be aggressive and don't back down," Ogwumike said of advice she gives the freshmen. "They need to leave it all on the court. We have a lot of upside with five freshmen who are eager to learn and play. We'll be a completely different team in a month, and the month after that. It will be exciting to see how we evolve."

Ogwumike made strides again during the offseason. Her constant attention to detail has put her in successful situations more often. She'll set the tone for the season.

"She's a student of the game," VanDerveer said. "She studies what others do and tries to recognize players like her and things she can do better. She's intuitive in a good way. She works at understanding the game better."

Stanford was picked to win the Pac-12 title despite sharing the regular-season crown with California last year. The Golden Bears also beat Georgia in the Elite Eight to advance to their first Final Four in school history.

The coaches showed a lot of respect for VanDerveer and Ogwumike.

"Last year at this time we didn't know what Chiney would give us," VanDerveer said. "She stepped up and did what she needed to do. She had a great junior year. She carried the team. Other people have to step up and take the pressure off her."

Orrange, named to the All-Pac-12 team last year, could hold the key to Stanford's success. She averaged 10.8 points a game, 4.1 assists and had a 1.60 assist to turnover ratio last year. That might have been just the beginning.

"Amber has made a lot of strides," Ogwumike said. She's so selfless and she can influence the team more than she thinks. She's passionate about making sure the team runs smoothly. She's more confident and she always puts the team first."

Orrange came into her own last year, scoring key baskets to help the Cardinal upset Baylor early in the season and then scoring 20 points, including the game-winning basket, in Stanford's 51-49 win over UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament championship.

"She's a bit of a perfectionist," VanDerveer said. "She's hard working but she has to learn how to let things go. The next step for her is to be a great leader for our team. She has to be more vocal and needs to push the tempo."

Last year ended Stanford's run of five straight visits to the Final Four. A return is a realistic goal this season.

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