Most improved: Pohlen, Ogwumike and Pedersen

In the fall of 1993, Kate Starbird arrived on campus to practice with the Stanford women's basketball team. Despite her frail and spindly-appearing 6-foot-2 frame, expectations were high. Starbird had set scoring records with her high school team in Lakewood, Wash., and in the McDonald's High School All-American game that spring, Starbird had scored 12 points and received the MVP award.

Her teammate in the McDonald's game, point guard Jamila Wideman, immediately became a starter and leader on the 1993-94 Stanford team. But Starbird's freshman year was problematic. At the urging of coaches, Starbird struggled to change her jump-shooting form. She did not start and, at the end of the year, her future on the team seemed clouded. She toyed with the thought of giving up the game, but teammates, including Charmin Smith, urged her to recommit to a sport she had played since childhood.

Come back she did. In her sophomore year, Starbird not only started but became the leading scorer on the team. She went on to become one of Stanford's all-time greats, earning Pac-10 POY honors in 1995-96 and Kodak All-American status for her junior and senior years. Starbird hit free throws at over 82% and shot 42.5% from three-point land in her last year. That year also brought a career-high 753 points (second only to Candice Wiggins' 787 points in 2007-2008) and a 44 point game against USC (tied for second-highest with Wiggins).

How did this turnaround happen? Starbird had some obvious gifts for the game, but how does Starbird, or any other player, execute such a dramatic improvement? The story for every player is different, but there are some common points of departure. Every player must accept her role on the team, improve and maintain fitness and strength, work to improve skills, and, perhaps most important, believe in herself. In Starbird's sophomore year, she accepted the charge of Coach Van Derveer to become a scorer. She worked on her skills, studied the game, and took charge of her own destiny.

For most players, the improvement story may be less dramatic than for Starbird. For many, the process is one of steady focus and gradual, day-to-day improvement. Here is a brief picture of the improvement road for three of Stanford's current players.

Kayla Pedersen - There is no dramatic Starbird turnaround for this player, who became a starter her first game of her freshman year. But the Pedersen story has its own amazing aspects. In her first year, Pedersen played the power forward slot next to Jayne Appel. Pedersen stayed in the games, averaging 30.4 minutes that year, and provided a steady defensive and offensive presence. She averaged 12.6 points and 8.4 rebounds that year, while taking many a charge on the defensive end. In her second year, Pedersen's points (10.8) and rebounds (7.8) were down, suggesting a let-up in performance. But those stats are misleading. Pedersen had moved to the wing position in the second half of the season to make room for Nneka Ogwumike. Meanwhile her continuing strong defensive presence and her improving assists explain why she continued to play over 30 minutes per game. In her junior year, having mastered the wing position (but still rotating to the four and five positions when needed), Pedersen's offensive totals jumped to 15.8 points and 9.5 boards per game. That, along with her career-high 2.7 assists per game and 82.3% free throw shooting, led her to play a team-high 33.5 minutes per game. Kayla Pedersen's game has, through shifting positions, shown consistent improvement. One of the most amazing statistics is that in her junior year, while playing predominantly at the wing position, Pedersen brought down 362 boards, the second-highest season total in Stanford history.

Jeanette Pohlen - Entering her senior year, Jeanette Pohlen is another Stanford player who has shown remarkable improvement every year on the Stanford team. Like Kayla Pedersen, Pohlen has been asked to take on a new role – after playing as a shooting guard in the rotation during her freshman season, Pohlen stepped up as a point guard early in her sophomore year to replace the injured JJ Hones. In that role, Pohlen has steadily increased her assist total – from 3.8 in her sophomore year to 4.5 last season. Her 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio (I'm sure she aspires to better this) was the highest on the team. But there's more. Pohlen made 71 three-pointers last year, by far the best on the team. This is actually down slightly from the 83 she made as a sophomore, the second-highest season total ever for a Stanford player. Her three point percentage has held constant at around 37 percent, and she is destined to be in Stanford's three-point record books at season's end. Pohlen is fit, steady, and works constantly to improve. She does what she is asked, including making memorable under-five-second full-court dashes to win regional finals with no time left on the clock.

Nneka Ogwumike - Well, Nneka is amazing. There's not a great deal more to say, except that she too has improved in her two years on the court. Stanford fans remember that early in her freshman season, Nneka made an immediate impact on the court, but also was prone to offensive and defensive errors. Her minutes were limited and she did not start games. By season's end, the Rubicon had been crossed – Nneka was starting games and often dominating them. In the second round NCAA game against San Diego State, Nneka set career highs of 27 points and 13 boards and was the hands-down Player of the Game. That put Ogwumike on the path to a stunning All-American sophomore year. She was the team's scoring and rebounding leader, with 18.5 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. She did not win Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors her first year, but her selection as Pac-10 POY last season was a no-brainer. Her 376 rebounds for the season put her in the No. 1 spot in the Stanford record books. Guess what – there's more to come.


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