There is, however, another evident reason for the team's high ranking. Stanford still has on its roster four of the five starters from the team that defeated Connecticut in the NCAA semi-final game of 2008: Jayne Appel, Kayla Pedersen, JJ Hones and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. Of the seven players who garnered major minutes in that game, five are still on the team (Jeanette Pohlen being the fifth). Stanford has lost two unique and highly gifted players since that game in Candice Wiggins and Jillian Harmon, but the other five players, all underclassmen in the Spring of 2008, are now experienced, junior and senior veterans.
This season's roster also includes two redshirt juniors who have seen significant playing time: Melanie Murphy and Michelle Harrison. This is an experienced team, with a depth of veteran players that Stanford has not seen since Candice Wiggins' freshman season (2004-2005). That poses questions for subsequent years, as Stanford could lose nine players over the next two years. Right now, though, this is a year of opportunity, with senior Jayne Appel poised to close out in grand fashion a career that has already placed her as the best-ever center to play at Stanford.
Stanford is nicely garnished with some exceptional underclassmen. Leading this group is the incomparable Nneka Ogwumike, Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior and a veteran of several national teams. Her end-of-season performance last year (and her record in leading the U-19 USA team to a gold medal this Summer) suggest that Ogwumike will be a big problem for opponents this year. She did not win the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year award last year, but this year she could be an All American and, along with Jayne Appel, contender for National Player of the Year. She's that good.
The sophomore class includes two other players that played significant minutes last year: Sarah Boothe, a center who would start for any team that doesn't have the likes of Jayne Appel or Tina Charles, and Lindy La Rocque, an outside-shooting guard whose dive-and-slide play in last year's California game will not be forgotten. Boothe's injury status leaves open the question of a possible medical redshirt year. Not to worry, as whether or not Boothe plays this year, Joslyn Tinkle will. Tinkle was the No. 10-ranked recruit among last year's high school seniors, and she can play the post as well as power forward or wing. Joining her at wing is fellow freshman Mikaela Ruef, another 6'3" player who was highly rated among last year's graduates.
With its combination of returning veterans and talented newcomers, Stanford has the potential to be stronger at every position than last year's team was. The loss of Jillian Harmon will hurt. Harmon led the team in steals, was a tenacious defender and someone who could score and rebound in pivotal moments. Offsetting this loss are the return of JJ Hones, the improvement in returning veterans, especially Ogwumike, and the contributions of two highly touted freshmen.
At the post positions, the question is not whether Stanford is strong, but how dominant it will be. There is no team in WCBB with the likes of Appel and Ogwumike as starting posts. On the perimeter, the return of JJ Hones and the added experience of veteran players, inlcuding Pohlen, Gold-Onwude, Murphy and La Rocque, gives Stanford many options. Then there is Kayla Pedersen, whose versatility may allow her to play every position but the point this year. It is difficult to envision all of the possible permutations among the veteran and newer players. It will be an exciting year.
So what are the secrets to a successful season? In this sport, injury is always a potential issue. Five players on the Stanford roster have had torn ACLs or related knee problems requiring surgery (Hones, two of them; Gold-Onwude, Murphy, Harrison, and Hannah Donaghe, one each). Although this rate of injury may be unusual, ACL tears are all too common in WBB. The five Stanford players on the current roster who have suffered ACL tears are perimeter players. Stanford has depth at the perimeter and elsewhere. But to achieve its goals, Stanford needs to get through the season with minimal injuries.
A second question is perimeter shooting. Notwithstanding the loss of Wiggins, Stanford's three-point shooting improved slightly last season (Stanford made 227 three-point shots both years, but shot at 33.4 percent last season compared to 32.9 percent the previous year). A major reason for this improvement was Jeanette Pohlen, who made almost as many threes as Wiggins during the previous year (83 for Pohlen last season; 87 for Wiggins the previous season) and shot at a higher percentage (37.4 percent for Pohlen to 34.4 percent for Wiggins). But Stanford needs more threes at a higher rate from all of its perimeter players. In the recent past, Stanford's three-point shooting at tournament time has been critical in victories over strong opponents such as Maryland and Connecticut. With Hones' anticipated return and the availability of the new practice facility, there is reason for optimism here. Free throw shooting is also an issue. Stanford's free throw percentage fell from 72.3 percent two seasons ago to 67.1 percent last season. That is uncharacteristically low for a Stanford team and could be pivotal in close contests.
In the final analysis, it is the desire and focus of the players that will make the difference. That focus is vital in playing defense, the legacy of Jillian Harmon. With the team's experience and veteran leadership, there is every reason to expect the team to seize that legacy and run . . . and run . . . and run. The team is poised for a memorable season.
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