March 24, 2011
Everybody wants them, but not everybody gets them. Stanford, however, seems to find more than its share in the women's basketball program.
Candice Wiggins showed up in 2004, walked into the starting lineup and turned into a team's unquestioned star.
Kayla Pedersen has been on the floor since the moment she arrived on The Farm and now she holds the school record for minutes played in a career - not to mention three straight trips to the Final Four.
The Cardinal boast five Pac-10 Freshman of the Year award winners since 2001 - Nicole Powell, Wiggins, Jayne Appel, Kayla Pedersen, and in 2011, Chiney Ogwumike.
Chiney Ogwumike, playing next to big sister Nnemkadi, has made a seamless transition from the national high school player of the year to a college standout with a very bright future.
Chiney has started all but one game for the Cardinal this season. She has grown into a stellar post presence. She came in as a great rebounder and has developed into the Cardinal's top post defender and a reliable scorer under the basket.
But she's not alone when it comes to first-year student-athletes playing way beyond their years.
Guard Toni Kokenis is finishing an up-and-down freshman season on a decidedly up note. Kokenis has had some huge performances in the stretch run of the season, probably none bigger than the career-high 17 points she scored in the Pac-10 title game against UCLA after the Cardinal faced down a halftime deficit to pull out the win.
Coach Tara VanDerveer said her young, talented players are just keeping pace with the elite teams around the country with top-flight freshmen making big contributions.
"So many young players are coming into situations and playing so much," VanDerveer said. "Chiney has had a great season for us. Toni is finishing strong and both of them are right in the mix for us. It's been a great year for our freshmen to contribute because they've been able to learn a lot from players like Jeanette and Kayla (Pedersen) and Nneka. They are understanding what it takes."
Chiney Ogwumike is averaging 11.6 points a game, one of four Cardinal players averaging in double-figures, and is tied for the team lead in rebounding with senior Kayla Pedersen at 7.8 per game. She leads the team in total rebounds and in offensive rebounds.
And she's become a big presence on the floor and in the locker room with her energy, her outgoing personality and her enthusiasm.
"She always so excited, talking about how excited she is to play, or play against someone," said senior Jeanette Pohlen of Chiney.
Chiney said she's just following the lead of her more experienced teammates, including her sister Nnemkadi.
"I think that I never really considered myself to be a freshman because of the level of experience on this team," Chiney said. "In my mind, at moments, I really felt like a freshman, but at the same time, the team really looks toward us."
Kokenis earned some early-season starts, moved back into a reserve role and missed three games after sustaining a concussion before she settled into her current role as the Cardinal's sparkplug off the bench.
"I just want to be able come in and help contribute to the team to help us be as successful as we can be," Kokenis said.
VanDerveer said Kokenis wasn't quite ready for everything that came her way early in the season, but she's come off the bench of late to provide a punch of quickness on the perimeter and offense in some big moments.
Following up on her heroics against UCLA, Kokenis scored 11 key points in her first NCAA game against Davis and played well in the second-round game against St. John's before leaving the game with an ankle injury before halftime.
"Being out with the concussion was a little bit of a bummer," Kokenis said. "But we watch video all the time and I was able to study the game while I was out. Then coming back, I have great teammates and they really helped me feel more comfortable.
"I'm just feeling more comfortable in general with our offense and what I can do to contribute to our team and what I can bring off the bench."
Chiney said she still has much work to do on a game that already shows so much potential.
"It's a process and four years of college is a long time," Chiney said. "I am still constantly pursuing that improvement...It is a constant process, but I try not to keep that freshman mentality going into the postseason and just try to be the teammate everyone needs."
-Michelle Smith, GoStanford.com