Top-ranked Cardinal returns from exams, puts 8-0
record on the line Saturday against visiting Pacific
The day before the Stanford women's basketball team left for the Rainbow Wahine Classic in Hawaii, redshirt junior Mikaela Ruef was shooting around with Chiney Ogwumike and Joslyn Tinkle before practice.
Stanford assistant coach Kate Paye was rebounding for the trio when the conversation turned to playing Baylor, then the top-ranked team in the nation and the defending national champion.
Someone wondered out loud who would be guarding Baylor's 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner. Paye, who played at Menlo School and Stanford, responded with a casual "Oh, I think we'll put Mikaela on her."
That's how Ruef discovered she would be making her first collegiate start. What led to that decision has its roots in her development as a player during her sophomore year.
The top-ranked Cardinal (8-0) hosts Pacific on Saturday at 7 p.m. in its first game in 13 days following a break for final exams. Ruef will be making her seventh consecutive start.
"Some little light bulb went on in Mikaela's head maybe two years ago," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "During the summer she was working with (former sports performance coach) Susan (King) Borchardt. She would tell me Mikaela was the hardest worker, and I was like 'Really?' I think she just understood at that point what it was going to take and how much time and how much effort it would take to play and compete and contribute at this level."
Ruef, who missed last season with a foot injury, took the opportunity and ran with it. She's the third-leading rebounder for the Cardinal, averaging six rebounds a contest while playing an average of 17 minutes a game. She's also (surprise!) third on the team in assists and tied for third, with freshman Tess Picknell, for blocks.
"I like being out there," Ruef said. "I don't like being on the bench. In my sophomore year I was starting to get more playing time into the Pac-12 tournament and the NCAAs. I definitely thought I was hitting my stride and it would be good going into the next year. Unfortunately I had the foot problem."
Ruef tried to work through the pain and would practice when she could. She felt herself falling further and further behind her teammates and ultimately decided to sit out the whole year.
"I had the surgery in March and the recovery time was supposed to be 10 weeks but it turned into 12 weeks," Ruef said. "The first day back on the court I was playing a pick-up game and I was so excited to be running up and down the court, I didn't want to stop. I usually get bored in a pick-up game but this time I was actually playing defense."
Her enthusiasm for the game caught the attention of her teammates.
"She loves playing," Ogwumike said. "It's tough to be on the sideline and I know she struggled last year but she was always in the gym with us, doing whatever she could to help. Now she's stealing rebounds from me. I never thought she would be a rebound stealer. She's tenacious and she's focused. All those intangibles you don't see in a box score is what makes her so good."
Ruef never has scored more than nine points in a game, but she doesn't need to score to make an impact on the game. Against Griner, she more than held her own, helping to limit Griner's effectiveness and grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds and contributing three assists.
"I was so nervous before that game my heart was pounding," Ruef said. "I knew I wasn't going to start her by myself and I just did the best I could. It was a team effort. I'm not the greatest shooter at my position but I can still go out and do the little things and work as hard as I can."
Did VanDerveer have an inkling of how well Ruef would play against the Bears?
"I didn't. I just said I didn't want Chiney getting into foul trouble or Joslyn getting into foul trouble," VanDerveer said. "Mikaela's got the next big body. The other person that was going to come in was Tess, and Mikaela has more confidence and is more versatile. Mikaela took advantage of it, she did a really good job. She focused, she did what we asked her to do. She made little plays. She had an assist here and there, she had a rebound here and there, she had a lot of hustle plays."
Ruef credits King Borchardt for helping keep her in shape last year and the team for keeping her involved.
"I made an effort to stay in shape and Susan was a big part of that," Ruef said. "I was included in drills when the team needed a passer and the coaches asked for my opinion on things. It felt good that they respected what I thought."
It wasn't always like that. She showed up at Stanford as an immature person and player.
"When she visited as a young player Mikaela really had a lot of growing up to do," VanDerveer said. "She would be the first one to tell you that she was a goofball her freshman year. She's really a good person, I always really enjoy her as a person and have always wanted great things for her, but she had to figure that out. I think with Susan's help she did."
Pacific brings a 7-1 record into Saturday's game along with Pinewood grad Hallie Eackles, who returns to her hometown area for the first time as player. Her season lasted all of nine minutes last year before suffering an ankle injury that required surgery.
Eackles averages 2.3 points and 4.2 minutes a game this year for the Tigers, who are coming off their first loss of the season. She'll have plenty of support in the crowd. Her sister Chloe is a freshman at Pinewood, and the Panthers plan to attend the game in force.