The women’s NCAA tournament kicks off on Friday. It’s my favorite part of March Madness, but you’ve probably heard people say it’s a waste of time to even watch. The University of Connecticut is undefeated once more, again the favorite to cruise through the tournament and claim its fifth consecutive national championship. Why should I watch, critics say, if I already know what’s going to happen?
The answer is simple: You should watch because of Erica McCall.
McCall—or “Bird,” as her teammates call her—is a senior for No. 2-seeded Stanford, a post player in the mold of former Stanford All-American Chiney Ogwumike. She’s a 6’3” athlete with the offensive skill and defensive toughness to lead Stanford back to the Final Four, where the Cardinal can absolutely matchup with, and potentially beat, UConn (we’ll come back to this). McCall is one of the best players in the country, a potential All-American on a team stacked with talent. But what she’s really known for is her emotion.
Think you’ve seen an athlete who loves his or her sport? I bet you McCall loves hers more. Every block, every and-1, every big shot is meant to be celebrated, not just by her or her team but by the entire gym. It’s more than the huge smile stretched across her face or the way she screams and leaps into the air after a big block; McCall plays basketball with the type of infectious joy that every person in the gym can feel. She makes you joyful as a viewer, because it’s so much fun to watch someone else have fun. She pumps her fist, beats her chest and high-fives teammates with so much enthusiasm I’m surprised she hasn’t sent some of them into the third row of the bleachers. Her spirit energizes an arena, and jumps through the TV screen. Legendary coach Tara VanDerveer says McCall “plays the game with great passion.” A friend of mine who’s a diehard Stanford fan says watching McCall makes her want to join a pickup game because McCall’s play reminds her how much she loves basketball, too.
But it wasn’t always this way.
McCall arrived at Stanford four years ago from Ridgeview High in Bakersfield, Calif. (Her dad, Greg McCall, is the women’s coach at California State University-Bakersfield.) She was a freshman the year Ogwumike was a senior and like most post players in women’s college basketball, idolized Ogwumike. Along with older sister Nneka, another Stanford All-American, Chiney had a reputation for playing with emotion, too, though they were better known for breaking Pac-12 rebounding and scoring records and leading their teams to Final Fours. McCall decided she wanted to be just like them—the Ogwumikes have two younger sisters, one of them named Erica, so McCall figured she was halfway to being mistaken for a member of the family—and with the young Ogwumike about to graduate, the opening was there for McCall to step in and become the next star in a long line of standout Cardinal post players.
But instead of becoming Stanford’s go-to option in the paint, McCall had a mostly miserable sophomore year. She played in every game but lost her starting spot midway through the season. Stanford missed out on a Pac-12 regular season championship, and finished the season 26-10 after piling up at least 33 wins each of the previous seven years. Worse, when the season ended, McCall’s confidence had all but evaporated.
“During recruiting, I understood what I was stepping into, the history of bigs at Stanford and what I could accomplish under Tara and what I’d be expected to accomplish. It was sort of an unspoken agreement,” McCall says. “But after my sophomore I just kept thinking, ‘How am I gonna do this?’ I was so discouraged.”
She spent that summer with USA basketball, where she was voted team captain and helped American to the gold medal at the 2015 World University Games in Gwangju, South Korea. When she arrived back in Palo Alto, she believed in herself again. “Knowing I could score down low against teams from all over the world was really helpful,” she says. “Suddenly I had this tremendous confidence.”
“A lot of high school players are a little unrealistic about college basketball in that they think it’s going to be easier than it is,” VanDerveer says. “And when they find out it’s not, a lot of kids will have excuses or transfer or complain, or have their parents call you. To Erica’s credit, she buckled down and worked.
“Sometimes life is like a cake, and if you take it out of the oven before it’s done baking, it’s not going to be ready. Bird just wasn’t ready. But she stayed the course, and she kept her passion.”
McCall blossomed as a junior, starting in every game and averaging almost a double-double (14.9 points and 9.4 rebounds) as she led Stanford to the brink of another Final Four. The Cardinal lost to Pac-12 foe Washington in the Elite Eight last season, a defeat that McCall replays in her mind, “like a bad highlight reel.” She wants to avenge last season but also, to do more. For all the Ogwumike sisters did for Stanford (Nneka led the Cardinal to four consecutive Final Fours), they never brought a national championship back to Maples Pavilion. VanDerveer has two, having won titles in 1990 and ’92.
“Tara’s never said anything about winning another national championship, or said anything about how it bothers her that she hasn’t won another one, but we all know,” says McCall, who led Stanford to a Pac-12 tournament championship two weeks ago. “She’s been to so many Final Fours, and that’s such an accomplishment but to get that far and not bring home a title, well, that’s always in the back of my head.”
The Cardinal will have to get through No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the Lexington Regional to reach another Final Four, then beat whoever comes out of Stockton to get a shot at UConn, provided the Huskies make it through the Bridgeport Regional unscathed. Should they meet in the title game, Stanford has the pieces to compete: Tremendous talent both inside and out, size at every position and one of the game’s best tacticians in VanDerveer. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see a Samuelson Sister (Karlie, Stanford) vs. Samuelson Sister (Katie Lou, UConn) matchup?
But even if McCall can’t make it that far, I hope people tune in to see her. I’m convinced that if they watch McCall they’ll fall hard for the women’s game, too, the way she did eight years ago as a freshman at Ridgeview High.
“I fell in love with the game so deeply and I was just so excited, every time I got a blocked shot,” she recalls. “I got really hyped off that, and loved to go crazy in games. Once, my senior year, this girl was going up for a layup and I blocked it out of bounds and I was going crazy, yelling to our fans on the baseline, wagging my fingers and saying, ‘Not in my house, not in my house!’ I actually almost got a technical. The ref kept saying, ’24, you need to calm down.’”
Earlier this week, McCall penned a letter to the future No. 24, imploring the next Cardinal to wear that number to remember that “#24 represents heart.” Upon realizing she would never be Stanford’s all-time leading rebounder or scorer, McCall decided last season that she could carve out her own niche: She could be “the most emotional player Stanford has ever had” vowing that, “Every time I got an 'and-1' or blocked a shot, fans knew they were going to get a special treat.”
She told the Future No. 24 that, “Basketball doesn’t last forever so when you get the chance to play, do so with passion.”
But for now, this No. 24 is still here. And anyone who needs a reason to watch the women’s tournament should find her.