After six months of missing each other in surreal times, Stanford is “fabulous.” VanDerveer: “We’re going to be really good.”
Photos: Stanford Athletics
The Aftermath of a Season Cancellation
Four days after the end of the 2020 Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, college basketball came to a complete halt due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. While Stanford had the opportunity to compete in a league tournament, albeit losing in the title game to Oregon, over half of the conference tournaments across the country were canceled as the coronavirus spread. In the immediate aftermath of the championship game, the Cardinal squad expressed optimism about the team’s chances in the NCAA tournament.
“I hope that this is a very positive motivation for our team looking forward to playing in the NCAA tournament,” head coach Tara VanDerveer postgame with the competition slated to begin in two weeks. Instead of a chance to take part in March Madness and with online classes already in full swing, the players headed to their respective homes and did not see each other again for six months.
With the combo of the pandemic and racial unrest in the nation spurred by multiple police brutality incidents over the spring and summer, VanDerveer described the six-month period in one word: weird. Now that players are back, she reflected on how it feels to be practicing again.
“I mean you’re just thankful every day you’re in the gym,” she commented. “It’s very humbling. You know, you take so much for granted. I’m so thankful to be able to be in the gym with our players and, you know, work with the kids.”
Santa Clara County, the home of Silicon Valley and Stanford, was an early epicenter of the coronavirus. As a result, county public health authorities, led by a Stanford alumna, Dr. Sara Cody, implemented strict measures in early March to help control the spread.
“I’m so appreciative that we have Dr. Sara Cody,” said VanDerveer.
When Stanford senior guard Kiana Williams returned to campus from San Antonio, Texas, this fall, it was a jarring experience as Covid-19-related mandates in the Bay Area are stricter than those in her hometown.
“I got back to California. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is a completely different world,'” Williams said. However, she adjusted quickly, and the entire team follows the guidelines set by the county and the university.
The Hall of Fame coach described herself as being in a high-risk group for the virus. As other programs across the country plan to open the season with limited capacity seating yet still allowing several thousand fans in the stands, VanDerveer is glad that Santa Clara County maintains more stringent rules than the rest of the country, measures which medical experts attest to the downward trend in the virus’ spread on the Peninsula.
“I’m the one that’s going to get it more than any of the kids, you know you know I’m the oldest….I think what people are doing out there is risky; you know, crowds, no masks, no social distance. I love what we’re doing at Stanford. I’m so thankful I work at Stanford and live in a county that values my life and my health.”
The coach is also proud that her players comply with the health mandates.
“We have a very strict protocol that our team is buying into 100%. We do a health check to go on campus. We go through a health tent. I get tested eight times a week. I wear a mask in practice. I don’t get closer than six feet to people.”
Staying in Touch
Before the team returned to campus and began practicing in mid-October, they worked hard to stay in touch and connect with the newcomers with virtual get-togethers, including a team banquet via Zoom.
“We worked really hard to talk to our team and find out what they’re doing and how they’re doing,” VanDerveer said. “And every time we talked to them, they just couldn’t wait to get back together.”
Every Tuesday night, the team had a guest speaker during their Zoom meetings. Guests included former Cardinal athletes such as Ros Gold-Onwude, Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, Susan King Borchardt, Katie Ledecky, and Simone Manuel. The team also participated in a discussion with retired California Superior Court judge and Stanford law grad LaDoris Cordell on social justice issues.
For Williams, one of the most valuable virtual sessions included hearing Nneka Ogwumike, a star forward with the Los Angeles Sparks, describe how she prepares for the WNBA season to get physically and mentally in shape.
“She was just giving us advice on, although we’re living in uncertain times, that doesn’t have to stop us from grinding and preparing as though we are about to play now,” Williams recounted.
As a leader on the team along with fifth-year guard Anna Wilson and senior forward Alyssa Jerome, Williams scheduled extra Zoom sessions with teammates to help solidify the team’s chemistry and help first-year players Agnes Emma-Nnopu, Jana Van Gytenbeek, and Cameron Brink get acclimated.
“Obviously, we weren’t here in the summer, so we tried to find a way to maximize our time together,” Williams said about the small group meetings that included three players at a time. “I think that was really beneficial especially for our freshmen.”
The team’s Zoom meetups enabled players to have honest and open conversations about racial inequality and police brutality, given the events over the past year. VanDerveer said the team was dealing with two viruses: Covid-19 and racism. She sent a letter to players shortly after the death of Breonna Taylor, a young black woman murdered in March by Louisville police officers who invaded her home looking for a man who was already in custody.
VanDerveer expressed her belief that change is urgently needed. “We need to use our platform to right wrongs” and to use “the Stanford women’s basketball platform to say ‘hey we’re united as a team to fight racism….We are more than dribblers and shooters. We’re very smart, intelligent women who are very caring.”
Williams appreciated the letter indicating that its message underscored things she already knew and felt about the coach.
“I already know she cares about me as a person, way more than she does a basketball player,” Williams said. “But I think for some people it was a relief feeling, that she was able to be open and honest with us about how she felt.”
Looking Ahead and Scheduling
Even with the official beginning of the season less than a month away (Nov. 25), Stanford, like many other teams, is still finalizing its schedule. The pandemic’s medical safety issues led to a flurry of cancellations around the country of non-conference games and multi-team events, especially holiday tournaments.
Stanford was scheduled to play UC San Diego, a team led by VanDerveer’s younger sister Heidi, over the Thanksgiving break. UCSD is in its first season of a four-year transition to full NCAA Division I membership, moving up from Division II.
“Covid ruined my Thanksgiving. We were going to go down there, and my mother was going to come. It would have been awesome….So, we’re not playing them this year but maybe next year.”
Stanford’s first Pac-12 game takes place Dec. 5. League teams will play 22 conference games. Each contest will be a part of a round-robin format to limit travel and keep teams in one location for two games.
“I think that’s very exciting, VanDerveer said. “The Pac-12 is loaded as it always is.”
Stanford has a strong core returning led by Williams, Jerome, and Wilson. It also includes several high performers: guards Lacie and Lexie Hull, Hannah Jump, and Haley Jones, along with forwards Fran Belibi and Ashten Prechtel. Senior forward Maya Dodson opted out of the season due to Covid-19 concerns. Junior guard Jenna Brown is out after having knee surgery.
As for VanDerveer’s health and outlook as the season comes closer?
“I am just doing fabulous,” VanDerveer said as she enters 2020-21 just five wins away from becoming the winningest coach in women’s college basketball. “I can’t complain about a single thing. I’m healthy. My family’s healthy and I have a job. And our team is doing great. They’re doing fabulous also. They’re healthy. We’re working hard, and we’re going to be really good.”