Celebrating senior night at Stanford

STANFORD, Calif. -- Let's face it, senior days/nights are not created equal. Not all women's basketball programs have a history that's successful. Or even if it is successful, it hasn't mattered enough to the school or community.

At Stanford, though, it does matter. The program, which has won two NCAA titles and been to the Final Four an additional six times, certainly has a history, and each incoming class is aware of the importance of living up to that.

Although the Bay Area has the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL; a million other non-sports options; and a population both connected and divided by snaking loops of automobile-clogged highways and bridges, Stanford women's basketball has maintained its hard-earned relevance.

It has done that through excellence on the court, in the classroom and in the community. Because of Stanford's rigorous academic standards, the Cardinal are unable to get every player they want. But, with some rare exceptions over the years, Stanford has wanted every player it has gotten.

The program is highly selective because it has to be. The players Stanford gets carry the weight of a legacy. This is a school where, as a student-athlete, you have to be exceptional just to be average. You put on a Stanford jersey to play for Tara VanDerveer and receive a top-dollar education, then you sure as heck better be ready to hold up your end of the bargain.

With remarkable consistency, the Stanford players have. Which is why on Senior Night at Stanford, you think not just of the players the Cardinal honor that particular year, but also of those from whom they've taken the torch, and those to whom they'll pass it off when they leave.

Stanford fans have said tearful goodbyes to some of the best players to have competed in women's college hoops.

"We used to do the senior presentation before the game," VanDerveer said. "But I would come over to the huddle, and we're all crying. So we moved the presentation afterward."

On Saturday, No. 2 Stanford saluted its seniors after yet another dominant performance: an 82-48 victory over Oregon State that lifted the Cardinal to at least a share of their 19th Pac-10 title.

We're going to bet that, with remaining games left at Cal, Arizona State and Arizona, the Cardinal will win the title outright. And Stanford will play again in Maples Pavilion this season, as the arena is one of the early-round NCAA tournament host sites.

"I think we've got an excellent chance to get in," VanDerveer said, joking with the crowd after the game.

Indeed, this will be Stanford's 24th appearance in the NCAA field. And during VanDerveer's quarter-century at Stanford, there have been names etched in Cardinal lore that should come to mind every senior night. Such as Jennifer Azzi, Trisha Stevens, Julie Zeilstra, Katy Steding, Val Whiting, Sonja Henning, Anita Kaplan, Christy Hedgpeth, Rachel Hemmer, Molly Goodenbour, Kate Starbird, Jamila Wideman, Vanessa Nygaard, Olympia Scott, Kristin Folkl, Lindsey Yamasaki, Nicole Powell, Brooke Smith, Candice Wiggins.

And there are two former Cardinal players currently on VanDerveer's staff, Kate Paye and Bobbie Kelsey, who are a daily reminder to today's Cardinal players about what it takes to keep up the tradition.

Stanford had somewhat of an odd senior night Saturday in that three of the five players honored might be back for next season. JJ Hones, Michelle Harrison and Melanie Murphy, who unfortunately all are part of the ACL club, are redshirt juniors who will see how healthy they are for 2010-11.

So VanDerveer opted to make sure they had a senior night this year, just in case they won't be around for one next season.

Meanwhile, Jayne Appel, from Pleasant Hill, Calif., and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, from Queens, N.Y., are definitely in their final stanza as Cardinal players. Gold-Onwude is a fifth-year senior who also went through an ACL injury.

The two close friends -- "We have the diva connection," Gold-Onwude joked -- talked about what they've learned playing together at Stanford.

"While our lifestyles growing up were probably really different," Gold-Onwude said, "there are a lot of things that Jayne and I have gone through personally that are similar. I really bonded with her when she stepped outside of that teammate realm and became a really good friend for me."

Appel is the superstar of this class, of course, and seems sure to repeat as a State Farm All-American this season. She had her sixth consecutive double-double Saturday (12 points, 10 rebounds) as she crossed the 2,000-point barrier.

She's now just the third Stanford player -- joining Whiting and Powell -- to have at least 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. And with 13 more boards, Appel will become the Pac-10's all-time leading rebounder, breaking the record of 1,214 of USC's Lisa Leslie.

The Cardinal players hope there is still a lot of basketball to be played this year, as they aim to make their third consecutive Final Four -- the program also did that from 1990 to '92 and 1995 to '97. But on this night, it was important to VanDerveer to look back a little bit as well as look forward.

"I kind of have to keep it together," VanDerveer said of her feelings. "It's so unreal to me that Ros and Jayne are really graduating. It is still really emotional to me, even though I've gone through it with other great players."

Then VanDerveer motioned to the sophomore sitting next to her, Nneka Ogwumike, who led the Cardinal with 17 points Saturday. The leading scorer this season, she's well on her way to joining the pantheon of Stanford greats.

"I told Nneka," VanDerveer said, "she's not allowed to be a senior."