From the Cheap Seats

As we reach the "big game" in a Stanford sporting post-season, you can count on your favorite scribe from Columbia (Mo.) to pour out his heart. He will tell you how much he loves this team and how proud he has been of this season. But 48 hours before the Stanford vs. UConn colossal clash in Kansas City, he admits to wanting more than a fond farewell for the Cardinal...


Right about now, I am supposed to write one of my traditional "almost end of season" columns that says, essentially, the following: I/we really love this team. No matter happens from here on out, it has been a heck of a year. After all, one cannot control the outcome of a game — only the effort you put into it.

That is pretty much what I do around here. It is not a bad assignment. It is inside work, and it gives me the chance to sing the praises of Cardinal athletes and teams.

There is a problem, though. For about the last three days, I have been trying to write that column. But I just cannot do it.

The "I/we love this team part" is no problem, of course. There is plenty to love.

Remember how you felt when Nicole Powell just missed that three-pointer last year against Tennessee? [Well, what I first felt was: "If Baylor gets called for a foul against Tennessee on less contact two nights before, how the heck does Tennessee not get called? Oh yeah, Pat ‘Just Give Her a Whistle and a Striped Shirt' Summit is coaching Tennessee. Never Mind."]

After that, though, I thought that we had blown an opportunity that might not repeat itself. Arguably the best women's basketball player ever to put on a Stanford jersey, but no Final Four appearances in her time on the Farm.

At that point, I thought that "next year," which of course is now "this year," was going to be a bit of a downturn. Not a terrible year, by any means, because we had four very solid players who would be seniors. On the other hand, if we could not get to a Final Four with Nicole, I could not convince myself that we would be a big threat to do it without her.

Then good things started to happen. When Susan King Borchardt decided to return, the four solid seniors became five. Then the freshman we had heard good things about, Candice Wiggins, turned out to be as good, or even better than, her press clippings and scouting reports. When the season started, we found out that the Duke transfer, Brooke Smith, was the real deal.

It has indeed turned out to be a heck of year. Indeed, this team's won-loss record is the best of any Stanford sports team since . . . well, since last year's men's team. And that is pretty good company to keep.

They have gotten there with great chemistry. Although we Stanford sports fans are sometimes spoiled into complacency by our teams' good chemistry, anyone who has played school sports, in high school or college, should have an appreciation for this team's spirit.

After all, in school sports, the seniors are supposed to be the headline grabbers — the ones everyone talks about when discussing the team. Our five seniors, strong players all, had every reason to expect that to be the case this year.

Instead, Candice Wiggins, a freshman of all things, has, through no fault of her own (other than being an amazing athlete) generated most of the publicity, particularly on the national level. If that was not enough, another newcomer, Brooke Smith, has taken a good chunk of the rest of the spotlight.

Not once have I heard even a smidge of a complaint about this from our five seniors. That alone demonstrates a huge amount of leadership and class by these five players.

Instead, it appears to this observer that this is a strongly bonded team. They really seem to enjoy each other's success. The mental image that I will carry from this year is the AP photo from the Utah game where the star players are jumping in unison off the bench to celebrate a basket by one of the reserves. That picture captures this team's togetherness pretty well. It is not surprising that Tara VanDerveer has said that she really enjoys being around this team.

In addition, I can report, as I have previously, that this is a very nice group of young women. When they were in our town in December, they patiently signed autographs and talked to our then 10-year-old, MiniMizzouCard, while their coach actually took the time to talk with his mom and dad. Like pretty much every Stanford athlete and coach I have had the chance to meet, they are very strong ambassadors for our great university.

Also, let's not forget that this team, like our men's team, has been forced to deal with a fair amount of adversity. The season started with Susan Borchardt on the sidelines. The regular season ended with another starter, T'Nae Thiel, riding the pine with a broken foot. The injury bug has bitten several other players over the course of the season. It has not stopped the team from piling up wins, however.

Of course, I must admit that it is easy for me to love a team that wins over 30 games and loses only two. A team with the most exciting young player in the game, with a throwback post who can hook you either way, with that great senior class. From a purely athletic standpoint, there is a lot to like about this team.

That, perhaps, is my problem. Much as I want to reiterate my traditional "it does not matter what happens now," much as this team deserves for we Stanford fans to take that attitude, I just cannot find it in me. Instead, I am in "I really want you to keep winning" mode.

It is not just that I think we can keep winning, though that is a big part of why I feel this way. Instead, this attitude I cannot shake also results from several factors.

First, I am a Stanford sports fan. If Stanford plays it, I want Stanford to win. If tiddlywinks were an NCAA sport and there was a match within a few hundred miles of my town, I would put on a Stanford sweatshirt, get in the car (with MiniMizzouCard in tow, no doubt), hum "All Right Now" while dodging traffic on the interstate to get to the game, and yell all match long.

Here is the problem: For about the last year, Stanford has not had too much success in the post-season, at least in terms of "winning it all." The 2004 men's team had that painful loss in Seattle. The women's team had its own painful loss the next week. The softball team made it to the softball CWS, but went down in heartbreaking fashion. The baseball team, stunningly for those of us who thought we had a birthright to an annual trip to Omaha, lost in a regional on The Farm. The water polo team lost a squeaker, again on The Farm.

There have been at least two noteworthy exceptions, of course. The women's tennis team won the national title last spring, and the women's volleyball team won one this December. Both were fun, of course, and great accomplishments. But MiniMizzouCard and I were not able to see the tennis match, and we had to watch the volleyball game on tape delay (because were attending the women's basketball game against Missouri in person, and one of us just HAD to get those autographs!). So we are still looking for our "Yessssssss!" post-season fix.

In other words, I am getting tired of being the graceful loser, of being the one saying "great try, guys (or ladies)." I want to try being the gracious winner again. It's time.

On a side note of a very personal nature, I am also not sure how many times I can watch Stanford bow out in the post-season and then look over at MiniMizzouCard and see that he is, despite his best efforts, crying. Like all kids, he recovers pretty quickly — generally by the next day. But it is starting to eat me up inside to watch him take it so hard. [Why did I ever let his mom turn him into such a Stanford sports fan? Of course, I tried to fight it, by trying to reduce the importance of Stanford sports in our house. But Mrs. MizzouCard just insists on making this a priority for little MiniMizzouCard. (Yeah, right.)]

That's not all. I really want to win this next game, because it is against UConn. Before the UConn fans blast away at me, which they of course will, let me explain.

First, I am sick of UConn and their smug coach. Not that he does not have the right to be smug. He certainly does, with 20 straight wins in NCAA tournament games and three straight national titles. Those are amazing accomplishments. The architect of those accomplishments has every right to be smug if he wants to be.

But I am a westerner/midwesterner, not someone who lives in a New York City dominated environment, where smugness is considered a virtue. I don't like it when people think so highly of themselves. I would love to see someone knock a little smugness out of that guy. It would be even better if my team, OUR team, did the honors.

Of course, this would be an accomplishment because they are that good. Perhaps UConn supporters can understand my strong desire to knock their coach down a peg or two as the compliment that it is. If this was some other random team, it would not mean as much to me to beat them. If we can somehow beat UConn, it would mean a lot.

That, of course, is only magnified by the ESPN factor. As a fellow Bootie, to whom I extend apologies because I cannot remember whom to give credit, noted, ESPN stands for "Eastern Sports Promotion Network." And there is no team they like to promote more than the local crew from UConn.

Again, I will admit that I am just a bit (okay, a lot) jealous of UConn here. I would love it if there was a national Stanford network to rival UConn's national network. There is no such network. So do not blame me for being tired of having to watch ESPN shamelessly and tirelessly promote UConn and ignore Stanford.

I guess it is okay that ESPN did not get any artistically shot film of our players for that ridiculous commercial promoting their NCAA tournament coverage, even though our team was #1 in the polls at the start of that tournament and the prominently featured UConn was a #3 seed. They are the three-time defending champs, after all. More importantly, that commercial is so lame, in my humble opinion, that we are probably better off having nothing to do with it.

But the UConn network has done nothing to reduce my distaste for their eastern-slanted coverage in the last week. In my neck of the woods, it is still our beloved KZSU for those who want to follow Stanford (given that the restaurant part of our local sports bar was closed at game time, and MiniMizzouCard was not welcome in the bar). Don't count on seeing our team for more a half, if you are lucky, on any ESPN channel here. First, both ESPN2 and ESPNU covered the second half of the Texas Tech vs. Texas-Arlington game, even though Tech had a constant 15-point lead while Stanford was neck and neck with Santa Clara. Then both ESPN2 and ESPNU covered Kansas State vs. Vanderbilt. I can certainly see covering that game on one of those stations, because it was closer than Stanford-Utah, but why both? It makes no sense.

Even though I realize it is paranoid thinking, it is hard for me to convince myself that ESPN, other than Lisa Leslie, God bless her, is not doing everything it can to keep Stanford, which is despite what everyone says the #1 team in the polls, off of the tube. In fact, there is a part of me that thinks the ESPN engineers have been working all week on a top priority project. I figure the ESPN memo to the engineers says something like: "Darn it, now I guess we have to finally put Stanford on the tube, because they are playing UConn, and it goes without saying that we will feature the UConn game. I guess we have to show the team that UConn is playing. But, now that it is Stanford, let's not help them. I want you engineers to figure out a way to use those weird squiggly blocks to cover up the name "Stanford" on the front of their jerseys. That is going to take some creativity, because we are covering a live event, but this is important, so figure it out. Then put together a scoring graphic that lists the two teams as "UConn" and "UConn opponent." [Just kidding, of course. I am not quite that paranoid.]

I am so sick of ESPN and, for that matter, CBS and the NCAA, and their east coast slant that I am starting to do some very strange things. I am not proud of this, but I am going to admit something to you: The other day, I actually rooted for _._._. to beat Michigan State. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

So, on top of everything else, I want to put those east coasters in their place. I want to send shock waves through the whole blasted state of Connecticut, particularly Bristol and Storrs.

More importantly, though, I want Stanford to win, for the sake of its players, coaches, and fans. I promise to be a good sport when it happens. But I want to test myself again.

Just win, ladies. Then keep winning.

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