Throwing elbows with the guys
This season, espnW is spending time with the Stanford Cardinal and Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer, getting behind-the-scenes access to the players. Come to espnW every Friday throughout the season to get to know the Cardinal and how they live their lives on and off the court, from the start of practice to the final game of the season in March and, perhaps, into April.
Valentine's Day brings the Cardinal a few extra treats, including an appearance by former standout guard Jeanette Pohlen, who now plays in the WNBA for the Indiana Fever. Pohlen played part of the winter season in Turkey but is back in California. She came to Sunday's game against UCLA and hung around for a couple of extra days to visit friends. She is heading back home to Southern California on Wednesday.
"I'll be back and forth," Pohlen said.
JP, as her former teammates call her, is sticking around to play a little scout-team defense as the Cardinal prepare for a weekend of road games at Oregon State and Oregon. A sweep would allow No. 3 Stanford to clinch its 12th straight conference title.
Pohlen has a few teammates on the scout team. Andrew Klein and Austin Link are suited up and ready to play. Link is a senior, majoring in physics. Klein is a junior, majoring in math and computational science. Both play club basketball and have been serving as practice players for more than a year.
Women's teams across the country use men as practice players to challenge their players, providing matchups of size and strength, particularly for their inside players, and to round out practice sessions when players are out because of injury.
Stanford has four sidelined at the moment: freshmen Alex Green and Jasmine Camp, who are out for the season; junior Mikaela Ruef, still battling a foot injury; and Sarah Boothe, a senior who also is out of the lineup with a foot injury.
Assistant coach Trina Patterson is charged with keeping track of the 10 young men who practice with the Cardinal.
On this day, Link and Klein are in attendance because of their size. Oregon State's lineup features a 6-foot-5 player and another who is 6-7. Link is 6-3.
Klein, who is 6-5, came on board last year when the coaching staff put the word out that it was looking for "big guys" to help the team prepare for the NCAA tournament and a potential matchup with Baylor's Brittney Griner, who is 6-8.
"You get free basketball shoes," Link said with a smile. "Actually, one of the reasons I started playing is I wanted to see how good they were. I know I was wondering if I was out there playing against them if they would kick my butt. And they kind of did."
As practice begins, Patterson pulls the two guys and Pohlen off to the side, opens her laptop and shows them the Oregon State sets they will be working on. This is usually how it works: some quick instruction and go.
"Some of these guys play pickup and our players know them. Some come recommended by former practice players," Patterson said. "We definitely want to have them in. We need big guys, and we need smaller, quick point guards.
"I think it's fun for them, working out with our players. I think they feel like they are helping us."
Link said he recognizes plays when he watches games on television, and he keeps track of player stats in box scores.
Klein is merely moonlighting on the basketball court. He is a member of the Stanford band and plays his alto sax at most of the women's games.
"I think it's pretty cool to know you've helped them in some way," Klein said. "And then I get to see the results."
Both Klein and Link agree that taking the floor for the first time in front of a Hall of Fame coach in VanDerveer was a little intimidating.
"The first time I was out here, I tripped on my own feet and coach said, 'Austin, go get some better shoes,' and I walked off thinking, 'Oh, no,'" Link said. "But everybody here is really nice to us."
Klein said the first rule is, "Don't hurt anybody." It probably is the second and third rule, as well.
The same, unfortunately, doesn't apply to them. Bruises are a standard hazard, particularly when defending the Ogwumike sisters, Nneka and Chiney.
"They have sharp elbows," Link said, Klein nodding in agreement.
Link said there are days "when I don't even belong on the same floor as Nneka."
Practice players have to fill out NCAA compliance paperwork, and the program provides them with shoes, shirts and shorts. They get calls from Patterson as they are needed. VanDerveer usually asks for practice players early in the week.
The guys are clearly familiar faces. Boothe walks over to give Link a hard time while he's stretching out as practice begins.
Klein and Link take the floor in the paint, playing defense while the Cardinal run offensive sets. Each of them takes an Ogwumike. Klein gets his hands on some passes inside, blocks a couple shots. Both collapse on Nneka in the zone at one point, making it tough for her to get a shot off.
At one point, VanDerveer pulls Link off the floor. "You're too big," the coach tells him, looking for another defensive look.
Paul Ockelmann arrives about an hour into practice, grabs his uniform, goes behind the curtain just off the court and emerges no more than 30 seconds later in a tank and shorts.
Soon, he's on the floor, playing shooting guard, with instructions from VanDerveer -- along with Pohlen -- to drive the lane as often as possible.
"Paul, forget about the post, drive!" VanDerveer instructs at one point.
Ockelmann is a lanky, 6-1 guard on the floor. Off it, he's a political science major, who also is a concert pianist.
Ockelmann came straight to the gym from his weekly class in foreign policy, which is taught by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a regular attendee at women's games.
"We were talking about the Iraq War today," Ockelmann said. "Very interesting discussion."
Patterson said Ockelmann is "really into" his role as a practice player.
"We'll be warming up and he's off to the side working on his jump shot," Patterson said.
Ockelmann has been playing with the women's team on and off since his freshman year.
"I love the game of basketball," Ockelmann said. "I came to the game late. I played tennis in high school, and I didn't play varsity until my senior year. This gives me a chance to play in an organized form. It helps me get better, and I'd like to think it helps them improve, as well."