Why does the 2006-07 Stanford Women's Basketball team have the Cardinal community so excited? Let us count the ways.
Candice Wiggins - 'nuff said. Brooke Smith and a super senior class. A better-then-solid trio of sophomores who helped last year and are making leaps forward. A fabulous frosh foursome who were ranked #2 in the nation and can help across all five positions, even on this deep team.
Lost in the shuffle as we pondered this premium squad in the off-season was junior Cissy Pierce. A McDonald's All-American who carried nearly as many superlatives and press clippings as Wiggins three years ago, Pierce had the explosiveness and leaping ability like we had rarely (if ever) seen before. But her fortunes on The Farm had floundered her first two years. She averaged 10-plus minutes as a freshman and 13-plus last year as a sophomore, scoring 2.9 and 3.5 points per game, respectively. The raw athleticism was evident, but it could not manifest within the gameplan. Pierce gave way instead to her polar athletic opposite in Krista Rappahahn.
"Some of it is just concentration and maturity," explains Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer. "There were just things I wanted Cissy to do, and Rap did them. Rap hit her threes, and she understood maybe more of what we were doing and played within the flow more."
With the famed freshmen arriving, it was easy entering this season to squeeze Pierce out of the picture. She had other plans, however. The biggest buzz of preseason workouts and these first two-plus weeks of practices has been all about your favorite jumping bean. Only now, she has the look of a bona fide player who is also an excellent athlete, rather than an excellent athlete trying to be a player.
"It's really exciting," VanDerveer offers. "She has been doing fabulously in practice. We want to see it carry over into the game, but her defense, her poise - she's just not making a lot of mistakes. She's hitting shots. She gives us great athleticism. She is really fast and really quick."
"A lot of times last year, it didn't seem like we were on the same page in terms of shot selection. It's just fun to see her doing so well," the coach continues. "Now I'm asking her to do even more. 'Cissy, look to be more aggressive. Look to take your shot more.'"
"I just feel a lot more relaxed when I'm out on the court," Pierce explains. "That has really opened up my game to do a lot more things. I'm able to shoot better, pass better, defend better - everything. I just feel more comfortable on the floor."
For the erratic sparkplug to become a zen playmaker is as surprising as it exciting. How and why did this evolution come about? Pierce points to her time away from basketball during the middle of the summer. She went to Belize as part of a study abroad program for six weeks. The Colorado native lived in the rain forest, studying ecology and a coral reef.
"I spent a lot of the summer not playing basketball," Pierce describes. "I think that time away kind of refreshed me and made me come back wanting it more than ever. Being away from the game made me come back and work really hard. My body was refreshed. My mind was refreshed. I think that really helped."
Pierce returned in mid-August, with just a few weeks to get back into shape. She has been not only sufficiently conditioned, but also supremely improved on the court. Of course, this story started before the Stanford student-athlete's sojourn to Central America. VanDerveer saw the change begin soon after Pierce's sophomore season ended, when individual workouts began in April.
"If she has a great year, we will send another player to Belize next summer," the Cardinal coach quips with a smile. "She had a great spring. I don't think it happened in Belize as much as she seems more relaxed and happier."
Coaches and teammates alike point to a maturation for Pierce that has manifest in these qualities. Sometimes, the light comes on after personal growth and introspection that comes only with the passage of time and accumulation of experiences and learning.
"I call it ‘The Year of Cissy,'" Wiggins beams. "It takes time for players to grow into what kind of player they are. She is so aggressive. I think that's the biggest thing. When she goes to the basket, she has this determination that maybe wasn't quite as big the last two years. There is this determination now that you can see. It's like she's not holding back anything. When you put that speed, that athleticism and that determination all together, it's impossible for somebody to stop."
"This is the best I've ever seen for her," the Kodak All-American opines. "Cissy now from Cissy freshman year is just night-and-day. Understanding the offense and understanding what she can do for us – she can grasp that now. You can just see it. She has this presence on the court. 'Okay, Cissy is here.'"
Though VanDerveer and the coaching staff are turning backflips at the emergence of Pierce, nobody is as outwardly excited as Wiggins. The two are friends and classmates. Tonight they will be starters and play together in the backcourt. They are athletic kinsmen, and the two of them together could be a terror for opponents. It has taken three years to happen, but now is better than never.
"That's my classmate. She came in with me," Wiggins says. "Everyone saw the potential in her, but for her to finally put it together on the court is just really nice. She's a good kid, and she's worked hard. She deserves this."
What will the new-look Pierce bring to Maples Pavilion in her junior season?
"Defense. Pressure on the ball. Three-point shooting to open things up for the post players. Anything I can contribute from game to game," Pierce explains. "We have a great team, and we're so deep. I really think that this is the year to chase the championship. Every year, we obviously want to, but this year we have all the ingredients. I'm just hoping that by my playing better, I'll give us an even better chance."
Admittedly, a Wiggins-Pierce starting backcourt is not at all what we would have predicted at the end of March for the start of this season. The athletic junior duo are ostensibly wing players, and the Cardinal looked to be overflowing with point guards.
Then sophomore Rosalyn Gold-Onwude suffered a knee injury in May and held off surgery until July - she might return in January. Attention turned to a pair of point guards in the freshmen class. JJ Hones and Melanie Murphy were both four-star national Top 100 recruits, but tonight they will both come off the bench. Hones was the frontrunner of the pair when workouts began in September, but a stress reaction in her foot set her back.
"JJ is not in shape, and she is not ready," VanDerveer declares. "In a month, she might be."
Murphy did not suffer an injury setback, but the Cardinal coaches are anxious for her to soak up college strength & conditioning before she can flourish.
"She doesn't have an upperclass body," the head coach critiques. "She'll play; she does some great things. She does a lot of what we need. She breaks people down off the dribble, and she is a great passer. Is she in great shape? No."
Instead, Stanford starts the 2006-07 season with Wiggins playing point guard. That is not entirely new, however. Last year as a sophomore, the 5'11.5" wing took the reigns of Stanford's offense early in the season. An otherworldly gifted scorer and playmaker, Wiggins was not the best decision-maker. Her predilection for turnovers, typified by eight in the loss versus Tennessee, drove her back to the wing and thrust then-freshman Gold-Onwude into a starting point guard role.
Both Wiggins and VanDerveer feel that the new and improved Stanford superstar is ready to play the position, with all of the chips on the table for this hopeful championship season.
"Last year, I think it was more of an issue," VanDerveer offers on Wiggins at the point. "I don't see it being an issue this year. We're really playing more of a two-guard [offense], and Cissy is playing really well. She gives us things defensively that JJ doesn't."
"I feel more in control – I know that sounds weird. I think that last year a lot of times I would force things," Wiggins admits. "I think that I've really learned that you have to let the game flow. You can't really make the game happen; it has to come to you with experience and maturity."
- Tonight's starting lineup is expected to be Wiggins, Pierce, Jillian Harmon, Brooke Smith and Kristen Newlin. For all the hype and expectation of this freshman class, five returning players will first take the floor this evening.
- That does not mean you will not see significant minutes for both Hones and Murphy at point guard. The latter has shown in practices that she can make her teammates better, and she excels beating defenders going to the basket. The former has a passing acumen, but VanDerveer is even more excited for her three-point shooting, which is something Stanford lost when Rappahahn graduated. Hones also has a physical presence at point guard not seen in many year on The Farm. "JJ gives you a different dimension at the 'one.' She's very strong. She's built strong," VanDerveer says. "I like that. We haven't had that since Kate Paye."
- Injuries have to varying degrees struck all four of the Stanford freshmen. In addition to Hones' stress reaction in her foot, Michelle Harrison suffered a groin injury and then banged up her knee, though she is good to go this week. Ubercenter Jayne Appel will be the one frosh who does not play tonight. Three weeks ago she hurt her shoulder (labrum) and has likely another week that she is out of action. Appel will have an updated exam of the shoulder today for progress. Don't expect her to rush back into the lineup too soon. "We're not going to throw her into something and have her put herself behind further," VanDerveer cautions. "She has to practice for a while. I don't want her to go out there and get confused. She'll practice for a week, and we'll see how she's doing." Murphy was the last holdout from the injury ward, and then she took a Wiggins elbow above her eye in a practice late last week that needed nine stitches.
- Fifth-year senior Brooke Smith has all the headlines in the Stanford frontcourt, and she deserves them. But don't sleep on 6'5" senior Kristen Newlin. She was averaging a freakish double-double in the early season last year before a stress reaction in her femur took her out of action. Newlin is bigger, stronger and better than ever. In two practice scrimmage sessions earlier this week, the Wyoming native scored 15-of-18 and 12-of-15 from the field. "And those were against the guys, not against our sorry defense," Newlin's head coach quips.
- One question that nags at those of us who report on the Stanford team (and who create rosters for the website and our magazine) is which post players can be called forwards and which can be called centers. Those lines have been blurred greatly the last two years, and today they are virtually indistinguishable for Newlin, Smith and Appel. Some of that is a credit to the broadening skills and versatility of the three players. Some of it is also by design. "That's the beauty of it. I don't have to. It's game-by-game," VanDerveer answers the question. "We run sets where we put two posts in there with a high-low traditional look, but they are fluid. One comes down. They recognize who is guarding them. They try to pull maybe a bigger player away, try to go in against a smaller one... In all the drills we do, we are interchanging who we play on the block. We're making it more international - moving and screening. Not being set and less versatile."
- Fifth-year senior Clare Bodensteiner along with senior Markisha Coleman are players not unlike Pierce, who could be easily forgotten in the sea of Stanford talent this year. But the coaches have been cooing over their progress. Both have been "attitude" players who have contributed in practices and team chemistry and leadership, rather than on-court playmaking in non-garbage time. Both could see much more substantial action this year if they carry their preseason production into the bright lights. Bodensteiner is a co-captain for Stanford this year, according to VanDerveer. Other Stanford captains have yet to be announced.
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