When discussion with Candice Wiggins, the premier two-sport women's recruit in the nation, turned to recruiting, her modesty shone with a brilliant glow that matches her personality and character. I started off asking when she first realized that she was one of the most elite recruits in the country, with a chance to pick her college on her own terms.
"That's so funny to hear you say that," she genuinely replies. "I never really though of myself in that way. I guess it's only just hit recently that this has gotten big."
It might have hit home more than two years earlier, though, when Wiggins was approached by the coaches at UCLA at their basketball camp and offered a scholarship. She was not yet a sophomore in high school at the time.
"They were the most blunt about their offer," she reveals. "Other schools have said a lot of great things to me, but they were very clear and left no doubt in my mind about holding a spot for me."
Stanford fans reading this of course want to know how early Tara VanDerveer and the Cardinal made their offer, but the women's basketball program operates with the same mechanics as the men's program. They do not tender any scholarship offers until a prospective student-athlete is admitted by the University's admissions process. Candice Wiggins filled out an entire Stanford application booklet, replete with personal information and essays. She gathered teacher and counselor recommendations, just as more than 15,000 other aspiring high school seniors have done or will do this year. Earlier this month she was admitted and finally obtained an official offer from the Cardinal.
"They told me that they always need a student to get admitted before they can offer," Wiggins tells. "But they kept telling me over and over 'We want you. We really, really want you here.'"
An NCAA rule stipulates that recruits cannot receive letters in the mail from colleges until September 1 of their junior year. That happened to be Labor Day this calendar year, which is a Postal Service holiday. Somehow Stanford managed to send their packet of letters and information through the mail and had it delivered on 9/1/02. It was the only one to arrive at the Wiggins household, and it left an impression.
"It was this thick package with all kinds of handwritten letters," the wide-eyed recruit remembers. "Coach [Amy] Tucker had a two and a half page handwritten note in there that was amazing. At first, all I could say was just 'wow' to it all."
This summer Duke stepped up its recruitment of the San Diego star and made a recent offer. They are a rare program who can breathe the same air as Stanford when it comes to the combination of basketball and academics, so she was sure to listen to their pitch. It was a compelling one, for sure.
"They tell me that they are going to win a national championship," Wiggins details. "They're right there. They have all the top players and have done it with all their classes of recruits. There are a lot of guards graduating, including Alana Beard. They tell me 'You could be a part of this.'"
Wiggins took her official visit to Durham two weeks ago, though it was not her first time there. She had played in a basketball tournament earlier in her career, but did not have any significant time to check out Duke in depth. This time, she was given an opportunity to take everything in.
"I would watch Duke on TV all the time, so to see it up close was so cool," she remarks. "I was hosted by Alana Beard, which was the coolest thing ever. I really wanted to see how I felt on campus - how I would bond with the players and coaches. I took the trip by myself because that's what college is going to be like. I won't be with my mom for everything. I wanted to see as much as I could of what it would really be like to be at Duke."
The issue of being away from home is one that is top of mind for Wiggins these days. "It's a scary thought to be all alone during all of this," she opines. The 'this' to which she is referring is the fires that have swept through San Diego County this past week.
"We were alerted to be ready to evacuate, and we packed up our things," she says. "We were very fortunate to not have to evacuate. The fires hit the other part of Poway. But it's been scary."
Another impactful disaster she mentions came two years earlier when terrorists struck our nation on 9/11. Her older sister is a student at New York University, and terror struck the family when the news broke of the World Trade Center attacks that day. Though her sister was out of harm's way, the general experience of being across the country has not been an easy one.
"She struggled with being all the way out there, alone, for the first couple years," Wiggins adds.
Candice Wiggins took her official trip to Stanford (10/24) a week after the Duke visit, and the NorCal visit was a very positive one. She was hosted by sophomore guard Clare Bodensteiner.
"I asked a lot of questions during the visit," she laughs. "Some were pretty direct, but I asked Clare a lot of clichéd questions like what was the most fun thing she had done at Stanford. But our personalities clicked like no other. It was awesome. There wasn't a lot going on that weekend, but it was still really cool."
Some of the more poignant questions surrounded the question of volleyball. Those players and coaches were only able to meet with her briefly before they had to depart for their road trip to the Washington schools.
"I was able to talk with Coach [Denise] Corlett but couldn't talk with the players very much," she explains. "That probably was a good thing, though. It would have been really tough to have a visit weekend where you split your time between two teams 50/50 like that."
The toughest questions were reserved for the basketball players, who would have to react to sharing her with another sport on campus. "I wanted to see how they would about my joining them after the start of the season because of volleyball. I want to play volleyball and Stanford is really good," Wiggins relates. "I asked them about how that would effect team chemistry, and they were all really cool and mature."
Wiggins did not have to ask the tough question about playing both sports of Tara VanDerveer because that discussion took place during an in-home visit in September.
"We talked about Kristen Folkl, who did it before," the recruit begins. "She was the 6th man for a while when she would return from volleyball, but after a point you can't sit a player with that much talent. Coach VanDerveer said that she does not have a set policy about sitting or playing. There is no rule against doing both sports and doing them well."
Every recruit has something a little different they cling to after a Stanford official visit. It might be the memory of their entry to the campus coming down Palm Drive. It might be a party they hit on a Friday night. Often it is some professor they meet at a brunch. But for Wiggins, it was her jaunt up to San Francisco to see her older brother, Alan Jr., play basketball. He is a freshman at USF.
"Seeing my brother play was the highlight of the trip," the younger sister reveals. "We are super, super close and we talk on the phone every day. It's only like 45 minutes from Stanford to San Francisco. That's huge. That's family. I can have the comforts of home with his being right there for me."
Though Wiggins also took an official visit to UCLA in September, she says that she is making her final decision between Stanford and Duke. As of my conversation with her Monday evening, there was a decision pretty settled in her mind. Whether it leaned toward Cardinal red or Duke blue, she would not say.
"I have a pretty good idea what I am going to do, but I want to sleep on it," she forecasted. "We don't have school right now [due to the fires], so I'll probably sleep in and then call the coaches around lunchtime [Tuesday]. I'll call the school where I am committing first, then tell the other school no. There will be a press conference Wednesday with the San Diego media there - that way everybody gets the news at once. It's tough to go through this last period, and telling someone 'no' is something I'm dreading."
Wiggins does not pinpoint just a few criteria that will differentiate Stanford and Duke for her decision. Normally either of the schools could win a recruiting battle on the strength of their academics or basketball alone, but other factors come into play with this head-to-head collision.
"I'm looking at the overall picture," she proclaims. "I know that sounds vague, but it's true. I'm looking at every little category: academics, basketball, volleyball, distance, the players - everything."
In the final analysis, I am going to call my shot and I am calling Candice Wiggins to Stanford. This is not based on inside information from Stanford - I don't honestly have the networked contacts to liberate something so juicy from the women's team. This is not based on anything extra that Wiggins or her coach have told me - all I learned I have written here. Furthermore, I am not making a Stanford call for the purpose of inflating the expectations of Cardinalmaniacs™. Unless plans have changed, the announcement is coming today and that ultimately will be what determines how Stanford fans react to the conclusion of this recruitment.
I simply add up what weighs in favor of each of the two schools and think Stanford wins out on the basis of three factors:
- Family/distance - Wiggins' sister's experience at NYU may not have closed doors to the East Coast, or else Candice would not have taken the official visit to Duke. But between the experience of 9/11 and the most recent brushfires in Southern California, I think the young lady's heart would like her closer to home. That doesn't just mean staying closer to San Diego and her mother, but also being a short shot up 101 or 280 to her brother at USF. I think that proximity counts for a lot.
- Volleyball - It doesn't take a recruiting guru to figure out that their is a precipitous chasm that separates the volleyball universe of Stanford and Duke. The Cardinal have won five NCAA championships, including the 2001 title, and appear in the Final Four with the ridiculous frequency. They play in the toughest conference in college volleyball and play almost every elite non-conference opponent imaginable each year. The Blue Devils are just 5-10 in NCAA history. Duke may be a lot of things in both women's and men's basketball, but they are not a national factor in the volleyball since by any stretch of the imagination. They currently hold an 8-15 record in the 2003 season. Stanford also has the track record of both Kristen Folkl and Lindsey Yamasaki playing both sports, with both playing professional basketball afterward.
- School's desire - Stanford has been recruiting Wiggins quite a bit longer than Duke, and that is a difficult thing to overcome in most recruiting scenarios. Tons of empirical evidence backs that up. It is also worth considering how badly each school wants/needs this recruit. While Duke fans will protest that they would do backflips through beds of hot coals for Wiggins, the truth is that she is not even the top recruit they have wined and dined with an official visit this month. That honor goes to Candace Parker, the 6'4" phenom forward from Illinois who is considered the #1 player in the country. She reportedly has dunked in a game before she even started her senior year and was named the Naismith High School Player of the Year in 2003 as a junior. That makes her the female counterpart of Lebron James, in a relative sense. But Duke does not have academic restrictions in basketball recruiting like Stanford, so they can pull from an almost unlimited talent pool. Wiggins is the top player in the country who was able to apply and gain admission to Stanford. She is far and away their #1 target, and she has to know that.
We'll learn the news today, and though I think solid evidence points to the Cardinal for her five-year college career plans, I offer this warning: recruiting is impossible to predict! Regardless of the sport or gender, recruiting decisions are often very personal and can vacillate at the last minute without warning. Even more notable, Stanford recruits tend to be a little too clever for recruiting analysts to pin down. Wiggins was clear that she didn't want her decision to be publicized before her press conference, so that way no person or organization in the media would feel slighted after being beaten to the punch. As such, she was pretty careful to dodge my many probing questions. She is smart enough (darn it!) to not say too much, and that will make her announcement today a surprise to all. Stay tuned to The Bootleg (including our famed women's basketball message board) for the news once it breaks!
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