Jan. 19, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - Stanford women's basketball standout Toni Kokenis can be excused for tooting her own horn. In addition to being a starting guard on the nationally-ranked team, she also plays in the Stanford band.
"A lot of my best friends are in the band, so I would see them having a lot of fun and wishing I could join them but I couldn't because of basketball," said Kokenis, a 5-foot-11 sophomore from Oak Brook, Illinois. "So I joined last spring and just started going to rallies for fun. I played at football games earlier this year. It's just another outlet so I can relax, have a good time, and enjoy myself."
Unlike some band members, Kokenis can actually play an instrument: the alto saxophone. However, she was assigned to play the mellophone, also known as a French horn, because a friend played in that section.
"I didn't have enough time to memorize the music, so I was just kind of dancing around," Kokenis said. "My goal this spring is to actually be playing with the saxes."
In the meantime, Kokenis is focused on helping Stanford capture its eighth-consecutive outright conference title and contend for a third national championship.
"It's definitely a winning attitude and that's what I was looking for when I was choosing schools," said Kokenis. "You build your identity as a team each year. We know what we're building towards and what our ultimate goal is and we want to do it for each other and represent Stanford the best we can."
A two-time all-state selection at Hinsdale Central High, Kokenis finished as the school's all-time leading scorer--girls and boys--with 2,031 points. Last season, as a freshman, she averaged 5.3 points and was named Pac-10 All-Freshman Team honorable mention. Kokenis tallied a season-high 17 points in the Pac-10 tournament title game against UCLA.
Partly because of injuries, Kokenis is playing the point and off-guard positions this season. One of her main responsibilities is to get the ball inside to the dynamic sister combination of Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike. She has done her job admirably, accumulating a team-high 56 assists, and also ranks third in scoring with 10.3 points per game.
"It's definitely different than my role last year," she said. "Towards the end of the season, I was playing wing and Jeanette Pohlen
was our point guard. She was a great example to watch."
Assistant coach Kate Paye, who mentors the guards, said Kokenis has made steady improvement, as evidenced by her 26-point output earlier this season against Tennessee.
"She runs the show out there and is an offensive threat," said Paye. "She's the most experienced guard we have. Her challenge is to bring it every single night."
Kokenis has great speed.
"She is fast," Paye said. "As a sophomore, she's just starting to learn how to use it."
Kokenis has no problem feeding the Ogwumikes.
"They're both extremely skilled," said Kokenis. "Nneka is just amazing. Some of the shots she makes, you're just standing there like, `Wow.' Chiney is a great offensive rebounder, so we kind of feel better shooting from the outside because we know that even if we don't make it, you have two excellent rebounders down there. They're two of the best players I've ever played with, so it's a privilege."
Kokenis isn't afraid to launch from outside. First of all, she's a good shooter. And second, it keeps defenses honest and prevents them from sagging on the Ogwumikes.
"I'm trying to go in with a more aggressive mentality, both offensively and defensively, to kind of set the tone for our team," Kokenis said. "Obviously, we want to get the ball inside and make sure we get a good shot. But I want to try and attack and make sure we get a good shot for everyone in the offense as well."
Kokenis, the oldest of four children, also excelled in soccer in high school. As a senior, she scored 26 goals and had 10 assists while leading Hinsdale to the state championship.
"When I was in eighth grade, I was dead-set on going to college and playing Division I soccer," she said. "And then I started our basketball summer camp for my high school and just working with my coach and said no, actually I think I want to do basketball."
Soccer's loss is Stanford's gain. Not that playing college basketball has been easy.
"The biggest adjustment was just getting used to how rigorous and time consuming it is with the weight room routines and learning how to do everything properly," said Kokenis, who plans to major in human biology. "Summer school helped me get used to that."
Kokenis spends her downtime hanging out with friends, and her favorite hobby is napping. When family and friends are in town, she loves taking them to Fleming's Steakhouse near campus.
Off the court, friends call the soft-spoken Kokenis "Tye-Dye," because she loves dying everything from socks to sheets. On the court, she's known as "Toni the Tiger."
Asked what she likes most about attending Stanford, Kokenis said, "All the people I've met and my awesome teammates. I had an amazing dorm freshman year and made a lot of great friends. Everyone is good at something different and everyone is so interesting."
Her scholarship donors, Burt, MS '59, PhD '62 and Deedee McMurtry, feel the same way about her.
"Toni's energy, enthusiasm, and ability are remarkable and it's a pleasure to see her contributions to the team," they said. "It's also delightful that she plays in the band in her `spare' time."
Kokenis said it's exciting to play for Tara VanDerveer, the Setsuko Ishiyama Director of Women's Basketball. VanDerveer is a great motivator and her teams are always prepared.
"It's fun," said Kokenis. "She always keeps it interesting. She has a lot of metaphors. Those keep us on our toes."
So will the Stanford band.
--Mark Soltau, Buck/Cardinal Clubhouse