Jan. 24, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. -
Tara VanDerveer has seen it all during her 34 years as a head coach.
Now in her 27th season at Stanford, her success speaks for itself: a career-record of 877-202 (725-151 at Stanford), 20 Pac-12 Championships, 14 Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards, 10 Final Four appearances -- including five straight -- and two NCAA titles.
So when VanDerveer saw her team's 82-game home winning streak snapped by Connecticut last month, and 81-game conference streak fall against Cal two weeks ago, she didn't pound her piano keys, yell at her golden retrievers or push a panic button. VanDerveer and her staff went back to work, trying to figure out ways to improve.
"I never really paid attention to it," she said of the streaks. "If you had asked me what the numbers were, I really had no idea. I kind of always felt like, `Let's just play this game today.' I'm not a big scrapbook person."
Besides, Stanford won't generate much sympathy, having won or shared 12 consecutive conference championships.
Apparently, VanDerveer got the attention of her players. Her sixth-ranked team responded by sweeping the Los Angeles schools last week, downing No. 14 UCLA, 75-49, and USC, 75-66.
VanDerveer, Stanford's Setsuko Ishiyama Director of Women's basketball, will be the first to admit this group is a work in progress. Early road wins against top-ranked Baylor, Gonzaga, South Carolina and Tennessee might have given some the impression her team was unbeatable, as the Cardinal climbed to No. 1 in the national polls. VanDerveer knew better.
"In some ways, our start hurt us in that we did find ways to win," said VanDerveer, who has only one true senior on the squad. "We're excited that we were able to do that, but I think it added a little bit of complacency to people. We as coaches knew we had a lot of work to do, and sometimes people listen more when they lose than when they win."
All-America junior forward Chiney Ogwumike
is a force, but can't do it alone, and especially needs more support from her guards. That became glaringly apparent when Connecticut rolled past the Cardinal 61-35 in a nationally-televised game at Maples Pavilion in late December. The Stanford offense was stone-cold.
"That was a real reality check," VanDerveer said.
VanDerveer schedules the best because she wants to be the best. It's better to discover your strengths and weaknesses in December and January, then in March, when you could be one-and-done.
"We haven't had the jump-up in terms of improvement that maybe I would have liked to have seen," said VanDerveer. "Some of it was based on kids weren't healthy in the summer. Some of it might be, `Wow, we reached the Final Four, so what I did was OK.' Well, now we don't have Nneka (Ogwumike)."
The top pick of the WNBA Draft, Nneka Ogwumike did it all for the Cardinal. But she also had help.
"We lost a lot with Lindy (La Rocque), too," VanDerveer said. "She was a very vocal, knowledgeable guard out there."
The loss to Cal was no fluke. Like Connecticut, the Bears were more physical than Stanford and imposed their will inside.
"I think it has been a little bit of a rude awakening for a lot of people," said VanDerveer. "Now, all of a sudden, you lose that great leader, that great rebounder, the vocal guard. Now it's on other people to go from being a role player to a prime-time player. That's a tough adjustment."
VanDerveer likens the process to putting together a puzzle.
"We're trying to help it," she said. "Along the way, sometimes it's frustrating for some people, it's challenging. No one likes to lose, especially when you have people who are used to winning. You've got to make things happen."
One player who has is junior guard/small forward Sara James. She scored 13 points in only her third start against USC.
"She plays really hard," said VanDerveer. "It's fun for an upperclassman who has paid her dues and now she's getting rewarded for it."
At 16-2, VanDerveer is hardly discouraged. She has the talent to win another Pac-12 title, and at least one coach - Michael Cooper of USC - thinks the Cardinal can repeat.
"Stanford is still the team to beat in this conference," he said. "I know they had that tough loss (Cal). But until they prove otherwise, they're the team."
It's not easy to play with a bull's-eye on your back, but most coaches agree it beats the alternative. The Cardinal has been so good for so long, some followers figure most games are automatic wins.
VanDerveer knows better. Fail to prepare, let up in practice, overlook an opponent, or have an off game, and it's easy to lose. That's what makes the 81-game winning streak so remarkable.
Chiney Ogwumike is carrying the current Cardinal squad, contributing 29 points and 16 rebounds in the victory against USC. But the Wooden Award finalist draws major attention on the court, and VanDerveer is still searching for players to help her.
"I think Chiney is having just a spectacular junior year," she said. "Her play has been almost seamless. Amber (Orrange) has stepped up, but we need more."
In the meantime, VanDerveer remains her usual cool, calm, collected self. By her count, she has only been whistled for about five technical fouls during her Stanford career.
"I don't think that helps our team," said VanDerveer.
Not that she doesn't get agitated.
"They don't want to know what I'm saying under my breath," she said of the officials. "You couldn't print that."
The Cardinal plays host to Colorado on Sunday, then plays four of its next six on the road. VerDerveer will keep pushing, fully aware that every opponent is gunning for her team.
"So we want to make sure that we're building a foundation not just for this year, but for next year," VanDerveer said. "We want to make sure we're developing really good habits for people and playing a certain way. That's the challenge. We have to be aggressive and a lot hungrier."
-- Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics
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Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his whole life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 35 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the sport's beat writer for the Examiner, national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, contributing editor to Golf Digest, and since 1997 has been the editor of tigerwoods.com.