With Jayne Appel in the middle of a lineup that opponents have to look up to, Stanford spies a national title within its reach
In Maples Pavilion, it's a Big's World and Littles and Middles are just squirrels trying to get a nut.
—Stanford guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, from her blog last season on ncaa.com
That tongue-in-cheek lament was posted after assistant coach Kate Paye put up signs in the Cardinal locker room commanding guards to love their Bigs and GET THE BALL INSIDE! Rosalyn Gold-Onwude went on to detail the hardship, inconvenience and general second-class citizenship suffered by Stanford's Littles (backcourt players, or "peasants," as she also calls them) on a team built around Bigs (frontcourt players, a.k.a. "the czars, the emperors, the queens"): "The Littles endure harder drills and slow delivery of new gear only to tolerate yet another injustice: the plays aren't for us." A fifth-year senior point guard and a Little at 5'10", Gold-Onwude is resigned to finishing her college career as a member of the Cardinal proletariat. Led by 6'4" senior All-America center Jayne Appel, Stanford's front line, which goes 6'4" and 6'2" at the starting forward spots, and 6'3", 6'3" and 6'5" off the bench, is bigger, deeper and potentially better than it was last year, when the Cardinal made its second straight Final Four before being ousted by eventual champion Connecticut.
November 23, 2009
These Bigs aren't just tall—they're tough, they're versatile, they're skilled, and they can run the floor like the Littles (who are, it should be noted, not all that little; junior guard Jeanette Pohlen is 6 feet, and junior Michelle Harrison and freshman Mikaela Ruef are 6'3" wings). Five were McDonald's All-Americans and a sixth, Sarah Boothe, a superbly skilled 6'5" sophomore with a dangerous three-point shot, was a McDonald's honorable mention. They are, collectively, an opposing coach's nightmare.
"You think, Good, we got Jayne in foul trouble ... [but] here comes Sarah Boothe," says Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly, whose Cyclones were crushed twice by Stanford last season, by a combined 59 points. "It's like USC with tailbacks. Sooner or later there's going to be a part of the game when they get you in foul trouble, they score and you can't stop them. They just wear you out." And, he adds, "they are much more athletic than people give them credit for. You look at them and think, They are tall at every position, we're going to be quicker than they are. Well, you might not be."
Associate head coach Amy Tucker insists there is no master plan behind Stanford's daunting collective wingspan. "It's the fate of admissions and the pool of kids who are available in a given class," she says. "Our policy is to recruit the very best players we can regardless of position. So we have an abundance of great big players. We wish some of them were point guards."
While Stanford's redwood-grove lineup is unique and not without potential liabilities—"The big question is, Who can all these people guard?" says coach Tara VanDerveer—it provides a compelling picture of where the women's game is headed. "Before, if you were 6'4" or 6'3", you stayed on the block," says UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell. "Now you have 6'4" and 6'3" [players] out on the perimeter. Now you have post players who run the floor like guards. That's the future for women's basketball players: You are not only big, fast, quick and athletic, you're playing every position on the floor."
Among the Cardinal Bigs, Appel is the least likely to go all Amar'e Stoudemire and launch a three. "I like the low post," she says. "I like to do the dirty work and get the rebounds. And I think it's a lot more fun to be creative with your passes down low." With big, soft hands and an 84-inch wingspan, Appel is the best passing post in the country; in addition to leading the team in scoring (16.1 points a game) and rebounding (9.2) last season, she was second in assists, with nearly three a game. "That never happens at center," says Fennelly.
But Appel is exceptional in many ways. The only Californian among Stanford's frontcourt players, she is a walking billboard for the state's fair climate and fine beaches. She wears flip-flops everywhere, loves to bask in the sun and sports powerful calves that were developed in her childhood by chasing seagulls up and down Capitola City Beach, near Santa Cruz. Blessed with an appropriately sunny disposition, legions of friends and a queen-sized bed in her own room at the Pi Beta Phi sorority house, Appel is also the most recognizable girlie girl on campus. At the Final Four in St. Louis last year, every member of the Stanford Band painted his or her nails hot pink in her honor. "Jayne," says Gold-Onwude, "is a 6'4" Paris Hilton."
But the diva analogy goes only so far. Inspired by the plight of a family member who suffers from schizophrenia, Appel, a psychology major, plans a postbasketball career in mental-health advocacy, either as a lawyer or a psychiatric nurse. "It's an area of our society that needs a lot of help," she says. "If I have a strong enough passion to do it, then why not sign myself up for it?"
Paye says she has never known a player "more unselfish or more willing to accept coaching and criticism." Few players anywhere are tougher physically and mentally or more respected, both by teammates—"[When] Jayne stands up, the team stands up," says Gold-Onwude—and opponents.
"In the scouting report on Jayne you have to say, 'This player can do it all,'" says UCLA's Caldwell. "When a player can command a double-team and still make you pay for it, that's greatness."
Growing up in Pleasant Hill, a sleepy commuter town in the East Bay area, along with three imposing, athletic brothers, Appel abided by the house rules: no TV on weekdays; if you're not outside playing, you're inside doing chores; and no blood, no foul. As competitive as her family was—"In our Thanksgiving line you better take all that you want, otherwise you have to finish first to get seconds," she says—Appel credits much of her grit to her roles on her nonbasketball teams: She was a goalie on her youth soccer team and the hole set on the Carondelet High water polo team, a position (analogous to basketball's center) that absorbs so much physical abuse she went through three swimsuits her senior year. "It was great for making you tough mentally too," she says. "It really was sink or swim."
Water polo also helped refine the passing and ambidextrous shooting skills that her father, Joe, a lawyer who played hoops collegiately for St. Mary's (in Moraga, Calif.) in the '70s, drilled into her when he was her CYO coach. "I can still picture him on the baseline holding up his left hand," says Appel. "Now I find myself doing it to my teammates. If you're on the left side, shoot lefthanded!"
Says 6'4" junior Kayla Pedersen, "You give Jayne the ball down low and she'll score on you at will. If she's quadrupled, she'll find someone else. And yes, I have seen her quadrupled."
Pedersen, a communication and psychology major from Fountain Hills, Ariz., is such a pillar of dependability that teammates consult her as they would an almanac. What time is practice? When is breakfast? When does the bus leave? "Kayla just knows," says Gold-Onwude. "On the court you don't have to say anything to her because she's already doing whatever she's supposed to be doing. She is the Given."
Pedersen has had to master two very different roles in Stanford's triangle offense. After playing power forward her freshman year (averaging 12.6 points and 8.4 rebounds), Pedersen moved to the wing last season and contributed 10.8 points and 7.8 rebounds a game while serving, no surprise, as a team captain. "Her stats weren't eye-popping, but when you watched the film later you saw she did all the right things—boxed this person out, was at the right spot," says Tucker. "Nothing rattles her; she is a rock."
Last year the power forward spot was often filled by the hyperathletic former gymnast Nnemkadi (Nneka) Ogwumike, a relative shrimp at 6'2" who makes up for her lack of stature with a 30-inch vertical leap. She led the Pac-10 with 62.9% shooting, averaged 10.6 points and 6.1 rebounds, and otherwise made a strong case to be Stanford's third straight Pac-10 freshman of the year (following Appel and Pedersen)—but the award instead went to USC's Briana Gilbreath. Feeling slighted, Ogwumike went off in the NCAA tournament, averaging 15.0 points and 9.4 rebounds in five postseason games. "I wanted to show people I belonged up there too," she says.
In addition to a stint with the gold-medal-winning U.S. under-19 world championship team (for which she averaged a team-high 13.6 points and 9.9 rebounds), Ogwumike worked on her shooting and ballhandling this summer with her 6'3" sister Chiney, the consensus top 2010 recruit, who just signed with Stanford. Nneka's coaches are anticipating a breakout year. "In practice when a shot goes up you see her hand up there grabbing the ball, and there's no one even close," says assistant coach Bobbie Kelsey. "I told her, 'Nneka, in the first five minutes of a game, you should have five rebounds. Who will stop you?' She doesn't even know what she is capable of."
Ogwumike's fellow sophomore Boothe, a native of Gurnee, Ill., who endures a lot of grief from Appel for her Chicago accent—"I didn't even know I had an accent until I got out here," she says—is another young Big loaded with skill and upside. Like Appel, she grew up among towering brothers and learned how to box out at the dinner line as well as on the court. She, too, is difficult to stop around the basket. And like Appel, who had arthroscopic surgery on her left meniscus in June, Boothe spent the summer sidelined. On May 28 she had surgery to repair a stress fracture of the navicular bone in her right foot. Given that injury's lengthy healing process, Boothe, whom VanDerveer calls "a big-time player," might be redshirted this year.
Even without her, Stanford will have plenty of depth in the post. Freshman Joslyn Tinkle—a 6'3" forward from Missoula, Mont., who looks so much like Appel that Stanford's basketball campers often got the two mixed up this summer—is learning the 3, 4 and 5 positions. "Put Jayne and Kayla in a blender and that's Joslyn," says VanDerveer. "She can run, she can pass, she can shoot, she's a banger." Tinkle's father, Wayne, is the men's coach at Montana, where he and his wife, the former Lisa McLeod, starred for the Grizzlies in the 1980s. "Joslyn understands the game," says VanDerveer.
Making Stanford's frontcourt truly transcontinental is 6'3" junior Ashley Cimino, a fast-improving reserve power forward from Yarmouth, Maine. With Boothe and Appel hobbled, Cimino logged a lot of minutes when the Cardinal traveled overseas for four games against Italian professional teams in September. "There are no liabilities with our posts," says Gold-Onwude. "I used to only want to go to Jayne's side, but now I'm confident throwing the ball in to any of them."
Likewise the posts should have a lot more confidence kicking it back out. Stanford's perimeter, which has had difficulty against quick and aggressive teams such as Tennessee and Connecticut in the last two years, should be shored up this season. Redshirt junior JJ Hones, a savvy point guard and a 39% three-point shooter who reinjured her left ACL in a game against Rutgers last November, is back, as is her replacement, Pohlen, who played with Pedersen on the U.S. team that won gold at the World University Games this summer. "We've been post-dominant, but the guards have come back very strong," says Gold-Onwude. "So I'm really interested to see how our points get scored."
One thing that bodes well for Stanford as it faces the toughest nonconference schedule in program history—including a nine-day stretch in December with consecutive games against Duke, Tennessee and Connecticut—is that nobody on the team cares how that scoring gets divvied up. In truth, Stanford's Littles do love their Bigs. "Jayne makes me look like a great player," says 5'8" sophomore guard and fellow Pi Phi, Lindy La Rocque. "She makes everybody around her better."
And the Bigs love them back. "I would give up my All-America award if I could win a national championship with my team," says Appel. "We've knocked on the door twice now. Maybe the third time really is the charm."
Appel, the most visible girlie girl on campus, "is a 6'4" Paris Hilton," says Gold-Onwude.